Archive for December, 2009

Cheery in death

I went to the cemetery the other day:  Forest Lawn, in Glendale, CA.  It was a bright afternoon, though freezing by local standards, with temperature in the 50s and whipping wind that cleared away all the clouds, revealing every crisp detail of the surrounding hills.

Somehow I imagined this place to be like an old European or American graveyard—a gathering of picturesque statues and stones rising over aged tombs.  I love wondering around such evocative grounds, reading weathered names, looking at sad-eyed stone angels and faithful hounds, peering at grand mausoleums in various architectural styles.  But I encountered none of this at Forest Lawn.  Its founder, Dr. Hubert Eaton, had a very different idea when he founded his memorial park in 1906.

A believer in joyous life after death, Dr. Eaton deemed traditional cemeteries, with their assortment ofmournful monuments, depressing.   So he created instead a sprawling terrain of rolling hills covered with emerald lawns into which are inset flat horizontal plaques marking the graves.  (Dr. Eaton was also a clever man:  this kind of burial ground is much easier to maintain:  you can mow the lawns with ease, passing over the markers, and not have to weave between the upright monuments.)

The pristine appearance of undulating green slopes is a bit of a bore.  What makes it more interesting, though, are occasional statues livening up the scenery.  Eaton was an art lover and he purchased statues both for his pleasure and for resale to cemetery clients.  What’s remarkable about these pieces is that most of them are conspicuously non-funerary:  a great number of them depicts scantily clad or quite naked young ladies sitting or standing in romantic poses, their white marble buttocks and breasts seemingly pulsing with life and promise of earthly delights.   They make for peculiar guardians of the cemetery’s inhabitants, especially those interred at the time of its founding, since they belonged to the Victorian age.

It is still more strange that Eaton combined these beauties with a distinctly more Christian art:  he commissioned copies of Michelangelo’s statues including David, Moses, and San Lorenzo Madonna and Child, a stained glass version of Leonardo’s Last Supper, an enormous panorama of the Crucifixion measuring 195 feet in length.   He also set up a museum on the grounds to display his collection of stained glass, coins, Western bronze statues, and even an Easter Island head.   The museum also puts on three exhibitions a year on various, equally diverse subjects.

All this makes for a strange cemetery visit.  Is one supposed to feel reverent, amused, educated, inspired?  I may be too traditional in wanting my museum experience to be one thing, a stroll through the cemetery another, a perusal of lascivious 19th and early 20th century beauties something else again.  But maybe it’s a perfect LA experience – having it all, in a somewhat kitschy version, with a doze of old world pretentiousness and California outdoor spaciousness.  Maybe Dr. Eaton was right and this is a cheerier way to go.


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In search of a hero

One of my favorite writers is Barry Unsworth.  He is a master of historical fiction.  I like his work so much because like me, he gets curious about a certain moment in time, or a person, or a work of art, and dives whole-heartedly into research so as to bring his subject to life.  He is also a consummate craftsman.  In his Sacred Hunger, to cite on example, he takes as his theme the slave trade in the 18th century and explores it through the lens of a ship that sets out from England to buy human cargo in Africa.  Unsworth begins the book with the sorry lot of men recruited, and sometimes abducted, to serve on these vessels, and the picture becomes grimmer from there.  You meet the down and out riffraff manning the ship, the miserable slaves loaded on it, the heartless captain brutally lording it over his subordinates, the idealistic doctor who is in the process of losing his lofty notions.  Life aboard the ship is horrendous.  Yet the story is so compellingly told, the writing is so rich, that you keep reading, and the book remains vivid in your mind long after you’ve closed the back cover.

The same is true of Unsworth’s other novels, but the one I was smitten with the most isLosing Nelson, which paints a portrait of the legendary English war hero as well as a 20th century Englishman who obsessively researches and ruminates over his idol’s life and greatness.  Both of the main characters are fatefully flawed.  Yet Unsworth presents them as such complex, multi-dimensional, tangible men that even as you gradually see their shortcomings, you are riveted by their psychological types.  Unsworth achieves this depth of characterization by showing people in action.  I happened to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of stories after Losing Nelson and felt that I was being offered a watery and saccharine beverage after a deep, aromatic, lingeringly-flavored cup of tea.  She is a good writer and a clever one in being able to create situations that resonate with readers:  conflicts between parents and children, spouses, lovers.  But she tells you what they think and feel.  Unsworth makes his protagonists reveal it through their behavior.

Nelson, a glittering hero at the beginning of the book, loses his shine as you watch him in battle, giving orders oblivious of the human cost – including the men serving under him.  His vanity and thirst for glory render him incapable of perspective, or humanity.  A neglected child, he never grows up and finds a nurturing, flattering, adoring mother substitute in his celebrated lover, Emma Hamilton, a woman who is his match in vanity and need for affirmation.  Their willful immaturity cause a great deal of harm, for both of them crave and attain great power.  Nelson’s treatment of the revolutionaries in Naples, the culminating point in the story, is a calamity.  Promised safe passage, this cream of Neapolitan culture is, instead, horrendously executed in the public square of the city, their deaths irreparably damaging Naples as well as Nelson.

Losing Nelson grapples with what makes a hero and whether his achievements can excuse his conduct, whether his behavior, when examined closely, is heroic, or abominable and criminal.  These are major questions that can be profitably asked of many great historical figures.  Impressively, Unsworth does so without overt moralizing.   The voice of consciousness that keeps poking holes in the splendid cloths of Nelson’s legend is a humble secretary who transcribes the biography of Nelson being composed by the book’s 20th century protagonist.  This narrator, the man who studies Nelson’s life in minute detail, including recreating his battles on his tabletop on the days and hours they took place, is mad.  Literally.  Unsworth depicts him, too, with astonishing skill, showing his functionality in public, his derangement in private, his struggle to get a grip on his troubled mind by losing himself in Nelson.

As a writer, I am awed by Unsworth’s accomplishments:  by the depth of his historical research, by the range of his interests, and by his ability to construct and bring to life people of such veracity and so many conflicting layers.  I wrestled with this challenge in my last book.  Granted, my character lived in the 15th century and is far less documented than Nelson, and writing a work of non-fiction, I could not supplement the scant information at my disposal with fictionalized details.  But more than these shortcomings, I grappled with how to show a person with his unruly blend of virtues and foibles, ideals turning into dogmas, a cultural hero who is also flawed.  I aspire to reach Unsworth’s level of mastery.  But there is a long road ahead of me.  Painting an outstanding portrait in words is a great endeavor.

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Dog life

If you want a good life, turn into a dog and move to LA.  Of course dogs get spoiled in other places as well, and not all pooches are pampered in this city.  Still, canine life looks very sweet under the California sun.  You can gauge it by Audrey’s contented state—and she enjoys only a fraction of what’s available to her species here.

We’ve had a cold spell last week, so I as bundled into my woolens, I made sure Audrey was warm as well.  Vizslas have short hair and no undercoat, so they chill easily.  When the house temperature drops to the 50s, Audrey’s nose, ears, and paws turn into icicles and she shivers.   So she needs her own sweater.  I bought her one after she had a big surgery a few years ago and half of her body was shaved, so she actually needed this outfit.  I will admit, though, that I spent $75 on a designer get-up that turns her into a stylish Dalmatian:  it is reversible and has either turquoise circles on brown ground that matches her color, or the other way around, plus a cute collar and cuffs.  She looks très chic.  The garment came from a specialty store in the neighborhood that stocks an assortment of canine clothes, toys, and other necessities.  Including cookies.  Though for that there are here whole bakeries – just for dogs – where your pooch can choose anything from biscuits to muffins to birthday cakes.  And yes, I once caved in and bought from such an establishment cupcakes for Audrey and her cousins to celebrate her birthday.  I am not sure who was more delighted, the dogs, or the humans looking at the dogs gobbling down the treats and laboriously licking sticky frosting off their lips.

As Audrey and I stroll along on our walks, in sweaters or not, depending on the temperature, we regularly see dog-grooming vans in front of people’s houses.  Yes, they deliver a wash to your door, shampooing and blow-drying your animal without making a mess of your home, getting you scratched up by the reluctant pet, or spoiling your relations with him or her.  My canine princess has to rough it and step into the bathtub for her monthly ablutions, giving me a martyr’s look that asks why I must torture the one I claim to love.   Afterwards the bathroom floor is a disaster area of puddles and wet towels, the comforter on the bed is damp and disarrayed from Audrey drying herself on it, the tub needs a wash.  I hope that at least she takes comfort in me, rather than a stranger, maltreating her in the privacy of her own home, rather than in a van outside the house.  But her canine confederates might disagree and find the experience luxurious.  Their owners certainly do.

Another kind of vans we see are the ones that pick up pooches for playgroups and hikes.  Theses are not your regular walks with a gaggle of dogs straining at the end of the leashes as they drag along a distracted young person.  LA dogs go romping freely along the ridges of hills, gazing at the mountains around them and the ocean shimmering in the sun further off, breathing in the scents of shrubs and fresh air.  They go for hours and come back happily exhausted, at peace with their owners, household furniture, and shoes.  Their people, relieved of the obligation to walk their pets can go off and pay some more money to have their personal trainers exercise them in the freshly air conditioned gym.

Dogs whose people go out of town for a few days, or weeks, decamp for their own vacations.  Some take up residence at in-door doggie day cares, where they run around in huge rooms in packs arranged by clients’ size, or relax in their own rooms, draped on their own little couches in front of their own TVs.  Others spend their holidays at doggie camps in the hills where during the day they can frolic outdoors, dipping into a pool, playing chase on the lawn, and catching a glimpse of a whiff of surrounding nature.  They are delivered back to their people freshly bathed and groomed, their spa experience complete.

Yet another convenience available as home delivery is dog training.  I see these cars frequently, too, their purpose decaled on the sides of the vehicles.  Audrey, I will boast, was home schooled by her mother (me) and proved a diligent student.  She walks off leash, comes when called (mostly, unless there is manure to be had), and sits at curbs, waiting for me to lead her across the street.  She knows, and complies with the firm rule that she is not allowed to step off on her own under any circumstances, not even for a squirrel.  We often encounter other dog owners, wrestling with their more unruly pets, who marvel at Audrey and say to me, “can you train my dog, too?”  Having someone else do the job of teaching your animal how to live with you harmoniously and safely is a common wish, it seems.  Hence the traveling teachers.

Yet even for a dog not privileged enough to be visited by hairdressers, personal exercisers, or tutors, life in LA offers many pleasures.  Nature is on dogs’ side here:  the weather is almost always nice enough for a walk, since it almost never rains and certainly never snows, so pooches can enjoy strolls around the neighborhood, in the hills, and on the beaches – though strangely not most beaches.  The city itself is so dog friendly that countless stores put out water bowls for canine passers and welcome them inside with cookies.   Audrey can, and in fact would very much like to take me on a daily visit of all such places, and it would be a nice, long walk.  But only a few beaches allow dogs on them.  Which forces you, life being tough, to take a scenic drive to Malibu and dip your combined toes into the waves on a quiet beach where Hollywood celebrities have their houses, which they visit only seldom, leaving the beach blissfully empty most of the year.

If you don’t have time or inclination for a beach outing, you can take your dog to a play-date at a friend’s house.  Audrey is not a social butterfly.  She does not enjoy mingling with the masses at the dog parks.  But she has a number of boyfriends who call her up for dates.  Because California is a spacious state, and it has all these lawns I mentioned earlier, and nice weather, she spends many a happy afternoon racing around the back or front yards with her suitors, chewing on grass between sprints (she doubles as a cow), and running up to me, her whole backside wiggling, her years cupped out, her lips stretched in a smile, telling me how happy she is with her life.

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Christmas in LA

Christmas time in Los Angeles is very odd.  Even after living here for a while I find it somehow jarring.  Perhaps because I grew up in Moscow, where December meant bitter cold and snow, and also lived in Boston and Chicago for many years, I still think that summery sunshine is out of balance with the season.  Not that I am complaining.  Nostalgic as I may be for the “look” of white Christmas — or New Year, which is what we celebrated in Russia — I am not that keen to feel the bone-piercing chill, the brown slush of melted snow underfoot, the constant tugging on and off of the heavy coat.  And yet, it feels odd to be in LA at this time of the year.

Take Christmas decorations, for example—the white and red and blue lights wrapped around trees, dangled off cornices, draped on bushes.  You’d think that it would make for a fun and cozy family day to apply this festive glitter to one’s house.  It does for some.  But others, the affluent Angelinos, who are a plenty, seem eager to forego this pleasure for another kind:  paying special companies to come and adorn their property.  I see these men — perhaps the same ones who work as gardeners by day, also paid to take over the contemplative delights of planting, pruning, and perfecting people’s flowers and bushes — climb trees and ladders, affixing strings of colored lights to mini-mansions.  To me it seems sad, somehow, that this festive activity is given away, paid off.  Maybe I still relish my childhood memories of decorating our New Year’s pines – the Russian version of Christmas trees.  I am an idealistic kid at heart;  I want to tangle in tinsel and hang with my own hand the fragile and radiant ornaments on fragrant green branches.

Speaking of ornaments.  I was walking with Audrey the other day and was stopped in mytrack by this LA sight — I went back the next day to document it:  shiny red balls dangling off palm trees!

And on the subject of fragrance…  What does Christmas smell like here?  Like manure.  December is the season to fertilize the lawns so that — despite the fact that LA is really a desert, notwithstanding the water shortage (I got a recorded message this morning from the city government asking everyone to reduce water consumption because the situation is so dire), contrary to the fact that it’s winter — Angelinos believe that their houses must be surrounded by lush green carpets at all times.  Ideological qualms aside, I object to this philosophy twice daily as I walk my dog.  Pooches love manure.  For them it’s like a chocolate buffet on a cruise ship.  I must constantly pull Audrey’s muzzle away from this bounty, to the frustration of us both.  She doesn’t understand why I keep denying her the tastiest morsel of the moment.  I worry about the deadly chemicals she is ingesting into her furry little body that has already gone through a bout of cancer.  Not a festive thought.  My Christmas would definitely be improved by the absence of manure.

I do, I will admit, admire the lavishness of nature here—and most of it does not depend on fertilizer, I hasten to add, because nature and climate are so generous already.  While the East Coast is standing naked and gray, shivering in the cold, here not only is the grass emerald and the shrubs bottle green and the palms wave their olive-color fronds overhead, but the roses are blooming, bougainvillea is glowing in the sun, camellia trees are bursting into pink and red blossoms.   Not to mention lemon and orange trees that look like another species of decorated Christmas trees, the birds of paradise plants pecking the air, azaleas showing off their colors.  It’s all happening now, in December.  And magnolias will burst forth in January.

When my parents and I first came to Boston from Moscow, we reconnected with long-lost relatives who escaped from Russia in the 1920s and wound up in Los Angeles.   Overjoyed at discovering us after assuming that all their relatives had died in World War II, they flew us out for Christmas.  I remember the shock and the amazement I felt then at experiencing this winter holiday amidst sunshine, palms, and bare limbs barely covered by shorts and t-shirts.  We were recent immigrants, and LA felt like one more strange and marvelous manifestation of America, something out of the movies and not quite real.  I still have this feeling now.

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Please smile

I think I’ve figured out a new source of fuel:  Smiles.  They are an under-appreciated power supply.

A single smile can absolutely make my day.  Not being a morning person, I often set out on my walks with Audrey with sleepy steps and grouchy spirit.  My brain is still powering up and churning all sorts of gloomy thoughts that have accumulated like a sediment overnight and are yet to be chased away by some profitable day’s occupation.  I shiver in the chilly air and wish I were back home, curled up under a blanket and tucked into the comfort of a book.  I trudge along, until suddenly I encounter some stranger:  a gardner blowing leaves on someone’s lawn and stopping to offer me a broad smile, a dog lover smitten by Audrey and beaming admiringly at her, an older lady taking her mourning stroll and bestowing on us a cheery greeting.  These little gestures possess an immense force.  They dispel my cloudiness and give me the energy and the will to face the world.

I’ve always been sensitive to such small, yet jolting moments.  I have a very crisp recollection of walking to high school one day and passing by a man who smiled at me and said a friendly hello.  It was not such an extraordinary occurrence, but I was not in a good mood, and yet his smile was like a wave of a magic wand.  I still think of it every time such little wonder recurs.

The other night I was out dancing, feeling iffy — doubting my skills (for tango, my addiction of choice, is an ever demanding task master, and for a perfectionist — a source of endless self-deprecation), fighting pain in my toes (another hazard of this activity), mulling over some anxiety-inducing things that life has been sprinkling on my head.  But a smile from my partner re-injected ease and playfulness into my step, and a huge grin from another leader, amused and delighted by my embellishments, made me feel like a star.   Re-invigorated, I danced on for another hour and went home exhausted, but content.

Smiles come in various forms:  a generous note from a friend asked me to keep writing this blog because she is there, reading and enjoying it;  a funny e-mail forward from my mother about the Onion story on Al Sharpton blasting Tiger Woods for lack of racial diversity in his mistresses made me burst into giggles and,  putting me in a happy state, re-inspired me to work.

Smiles are so cheap, yet so effective.  And giving them is as pleasurable as receiving.  I wish I were a better person, continuously bestowing smiles on those around me.  Not emptily or stupidly, but thoughtfully, as a conscious act of kindness and a small contribution to making the world a better place.  I am too moody to maintain such a positive outlook all the time.  But I will try to do it more ofter.  At least today.  And maybe tomorrow.

You know how every so often you receive these chain letters asking you to pass them on to seven friends and then something good would happen to you?  I always throw them out.  I am too skeptical and think they are BS.  But I think it might be different with smiles.  I got three smiles this morning and passed one on.  I am feeling happier already.  And the day is still young.

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The art of being

Once in a while you meet people who are bursting with life, passion, and the thrill of being engaged in their particular occupation.  They are like small suns — intense, radiant, overpowering, utterly magnetic.  It is impossible not to become a satellite around them, heeding their will and feeling that surrendering yourself to them is the best fate that has befallen you – at least at that moment.  There is a part of me that wishes I were such a creature.  I might have the makings of it, but lack the extraversion and self-confidence.  But I enjoy orbiting around members of that species, every now and then, because they are fascinating to observe and offer great inspiration for how to live fully.

One of my favorite such suns is Fabio Picchi, the owner and chef of a restaurant in Florence called Cibrèo.  The restaurant is part of a mini galaxy created by Fabio.  It also includes a café across the piazza, a trattoria next door, and the Teatro del Sale across the street.  It is the latter that consumes most of Fabio’s attention these days — though he also appears on a weekly television cooking show, has launched a line of clothing derived from a cook’s outfit, just published a book about his philosophy of life and cooking called Ten Commandments, and has in press another called Seven Deadly Sins.  His mind is bursting with ideas and he talks with force and delight about each one.

The Teatro del Sale is a dinner theater of sorts, except that the two parts are separate and sequential.  First comes the dinner, and here Fabio is the star actor.  You see him, through a wall-size window, wielding his magic in the kitchen, and every few minutes he leans out into the space of the dining hall (which is a former convent and has pillars supporting arches above) and calls out in a voice of operatic strength the dish he is about to serve.  At which point diners rush up to the window and line up to receive a small plate of something delicious, from lentils with spices, to cold-cuts that melt on the tongue, to octopus stew for which you’d gladly sell your soul, to salted raw fish that reflects Fabio’s fascination with other culinary traditions (he used to have a branch of his restaurant in Japan), to meat balls that are nothing like you imagine, to any number of other treats.  He prepares at least a dozen, if not some twenty dishes per evening.  Fabio takes pride in each one, and his lure is impossible to resist.  After dinner is over, the theatrical part begins – concerts, performances, film screenings—something different every night.   Guided by Fabio’s wife, the fantastic comic actress Maria Cassi, the Teatro program fosters new talent, brings in established artists, experiments with different genres – in other words, it’s  another kind of creative kitchen.  Fabio is as enthusiastic about it as he is about his cooking – there is nothing that Fabio does with less than a full commitment.  So he personally introduces each performance, presenting it to his guests as if it were the crowning dish of the evening.

Fabio is tall and robust, with a mane of gray hair, a bushy beard, fleshy features, and huge eyes that sparkle with irony and mischief and glow with whatever he is thinking or saying at the moment.  And he is never idle, or quiet.  At the head of the dinner table, at his kitchen window, strolling though the San Ambrogio market around the corner from the Cibrèo, he is the king, commanding full attention.  And you want to watch and listen to him the whole time.   Articulate, fluid, and picturesque in his speech, and grandly theatrical in his presentation, he is always telling stories that you do not want to miss.  In fact, the first time I ate at his table, I was utterly torn between absorbing his enormous persona and tasting his heavenly preparations.  The two sensations were equally strong and in direct competition with each other.

What I find glorious about Fabio is that he sees the world as colorfully as he fills it himself, that he devotes himself to his work with his body and soul, that he is driven to always think up of new ideas – not just recipes, but other creative offshoots of Cibrèo, that his imagination does not languish idly, that his life is full of meaning.  I admire immensely this gusto, this ability to generate a universe of one’s own that also brings joy to others.

So many people go through life passively or timidly, unimaginatively or un-thoughtfully.  So few have the gumption, the vision, the charisma, the immensity of soul.

p.s. I first met Fabio when I was working on my book The Arts of Tuscany:  from the Etruscans to Ferragamo.  I was so smitten with how he fits into and brings into the present the long tradition of Tuscan creativity that I included him in my book.  I just saw him again a few weeks ago during a visit to Florence, and relished his enormous generosity, for once you enter Fabio’s orbit, you remain in it for life.


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There has been quite a crop of recent infidelity scandals involving public figures.  No need to name them all here.  The list has been recited too many times.  Suffice it to mention the most recent one of Tiger Woods.

I don’t think affairs have become any more prevalent of late, but their coverage has certainly exploded.  As if it’s almost become a sport to hunt after the next transgressor and splatter all the lurid details of his deed across the pages of newspapers and television screens.  Whether these stories provide a diversion from economic woes that hold so many of us by the throat, prurient outlet for the self-righteous, or titillation of celebrity news, they occupy the attention of the nation for far longer than they deserve.  Or at least the men in them do.  With the women it seems to be another story.

What seems to me to be missing in these accounts is a genuine sympathy for the cheated wives.  These women, who are going through emotional agony more painful than physical hurt, must first endure the probing eyes of the cameras as they stand, tense and pale, next to their spouses at press conferences.  Then they become subjects of speculations as to whether they will stay with their errant mates, or leave.  Then they are glimpsed here and there, fighting for their dignity as they try to chart a new course for themselves.

In idle discussions of their husbands’ conduct, which crop up at dinner parties and other social gatherings again and again, I’ve heard many men say that, well, these things happen, or politicians are all liars anyway, so what’s new, or he is a great athlete and that remains unchanged.  What unsettles me every time is how easily the cheaters are forgiven or taken as a given.  And how little the “collateral damage” — the suffering endured by their wives (and what about their children?) seems even to register.

Yet the discovery that your trust and love have been betrayed is devastating and unmooring, the humiliation of experiencing it before the whole nation cuts the wound deeper still, the process of coming to terms with what happened, coping with one’s fury of emotions, figuring out how to proceed through the minefield that the marriage has become are all successive circles of Hell.  They are, however, far less exciting to dwell on than the details of the lies the men have devised, the trips they took on the sly, the phone calls they made and tried to cover up, the exorbitant fees they paid for services that would, most likely, be little different at a fraction of the cost.  I do not advocate probing into the women’s stories and digging through their agonies (and in plenty of other cases the cheated partners are men who go through similar grief).  But I would like to hear some commensurate acknowledgment of their misery, of the fact that it’s not regular business to them, that their hearts have been shattered.

Why is it that people are prepared to mourn the death of Diana or John John Kennedy, but have little sympathy for more ordinary tragedies?  Why is someone else’s anguish so easily unnoticed or dismissed?

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