Friday, December 31, 2010

My Annus Horribilis

In many ways, the high point of my year happened as late as Wednesday, December 29, because it was on that date that I fully unloaded my toiletry kit. You see, I became separated from my wife in mid-July. She told me, “Either you leave or the kids and I will leave.” Not wanting to displace my two wonderful girls, I left. And for the next five months I served varying tenures in friends’ guest rooms and couches. There are many tales to be told by unpacking that one simple sentence, but suffice to say that I was taken in by good and generous friends, who enabled me to have a roof over my head at night and a hot shower in the morning.

I essentially lived out of a Rubbermaid container during that time, carrying a seasonal selection of my wardrobe along with my toiletry bag wherever I was staying. I was home often to spend time with my kids and was able to replenish, replace, and launder my clothing. But I had never fully unpacked my toiletry bag. I took out my toothbrush and toothpaste, my shaving cream and razor, my comb, cotton swabs, and deodorant as I used them, but they always went right back in the bag.

Ultimately, I reached a point where I had exhausted my supply of free beds and couches to sleep on, and despite the fact that I could ill afford an apartment in greater Boston while also still responsible for all the expenses associated with the home I was no longer welcome to live in, I realized I had to find my own apartment. I needed the stability and certainty of knowing I had a place to go, and I needed my own space – needed to reclaim my right to privacy. So I started looking.

I looked at standalone units, rooms to let, ad shared situations, until finally I found a two-room studio three miles from my house, reasonable rent, all utilities included. I spent my first night here on Wednesday, December 29 and while I had no furniture (I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor), I went into the bathroom and, after a good scrubbing of all the surfaces, unpacked my toiletry bag.

It seemed not to be a big deal until I actually did it. And then it occurred to me that I was holding an empty toiletry bag that I had to store, as opposed to carry around with me. My deodorant had its own place where it wasn’t in anyone’s way and didn’t have to be moved or removed. Unexpectedly, emptying my toiletry bag became a new definition of “Home” for me.

And so it is that as 2010 ends, I chart a new beginning – uncertain, as all new beginnings are, but with some hope. This has been, after all, my annus horribilis: my horrible year. It was a year that found me squirming whenever a friend’s Facebook status included the phrase “Life is good.” You’d be surprised how many times that phrase is used in people’s Facebook status updates. I’m glad that my friends’ lives are good, don’t get me wrong, but that is a phrase I have never had occasion to use. I don’t even know what it would feel like to put that out there. For me, life is often slow torture. It’s often hopeless. It sometimes even feels futile. There are good moments in my life, but they are snapshots, frozen in time, with no sustaining resonance. A fun time with friends or my children lasts only until the next fight with my wife or phone call from a creditor.

In a year like this, acts of kindness and generosity stand out like a beacon in the storm. I have been very fortunate. At my job, the people I work for and with have been very understanding and sympathetic. I often gets calls or emails from friends and family “just checking in” to see how I’m doing. Those friends who gave me shelter obviously have had an impact. I’ve been taken to dinner, had drinks bought for me, and gotten far more free advice than I ever could have afforded and know I never can repay. It has been made very clear to me who my friends are, how many I have, how wonderful they are, and how lost I’d be without them. Following a holiday season when I received no presents, facing a New Year’s Eve when I will share no midnight kiss, it is clear that they were the gifts and blessings I needed most and am so grateful to have gotten.

One gift that I know awaits me at some point in 2011 is my divorce. It will be bittersweet, I’m sure, but that legal act will finally cut the tether that has kept me moored to the ground. At this point, after this year, I feel there’s no place for me to go but up. And while January 1, 2011, is in many ways just another square on a man-made instrument for demarcating time, for me it is a sloughing off of dead skin, a rebirth of sorts, or at least a chance for positive change.

So may it be for me, so may it be for all of us.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Show of Hands

Many years ago, I came across a quote that I found very interesting. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it since, even on the semi-reliable Internet (see my previous post on the dangers of Googling quotes). But I remember it pretty well. It went more or less like this: “I knew I had become a man when I looked down and saw at the end of my arms my father’s hands.” I liked the visual impression I got from this quote, of a man, a young man, who one day realizes that his hands have grown to resemble those of his father. A father’s hands, traditionally if not stereotypically, are large and strong, the palms rough with work, the fingers thick like cigars, black hairs growing around the knuckles, yet somehow the encouraging pats stay longer in the memory than the angry spankings.

My own father’s hands are like that. Not huge, but slab-fingered, and with clean, perfectly shaped nails. Yet when I look down past my wrists, it’s not my father’s hands I see but my mother’s. They are smallish for my height, my pinkies narrow for a man (to my perspective, anyway), my thumbs almost hourglass-shaped (“Wallins thumbs,” my mother would say, referring to a genetic characteristic of one side of her family). My hands looks and feel fairly dainty. Too hairy to be a woman’s hands, but not the romantic ideal of a man’s hands. They are bigger than my mother’s, but far from being fists of steel.

My parents knew an artist, the Expressionist painter Hyman Bloom. I met him a couple of times and found him to be a quiet, quirky person. But I’ll never forget what my mother once said about him, that he had beautiful hands, an artist’s hands. I tried to remember what his hands looked like. I recalled that his fingers were long and thin, feminine even. Was that the ideal for an artist?

After graduating from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for Girls in Dorchester – the same high school Donna Summer later went to (by then it was co-ed) – where she did so poorly in math that she was encouraged to take art classes instead of continuing to waste the math teacher’s time, my mother went to the Massachusetts College of Art. All through her life, until she became ill with a neurological disorder that made it difficult and then impossible for her to use her hands, she would doodle her art school exercises on scrap paper, making ovals and drawing this same female figure with a tiny waist, pursed mouth, and fluffy hair. She never worked as a professional artist but she did paint professionally. She practiced an art now nearly dead, that of coloring black-and-white photographs with oil paints.

She worked for a photographer who would take the portraits and if the client wanted them colored, he gave my mother the prints and the coloring requests. She set up a tiny studio in what had been a bathroom on the first floor of our house. I used to love watching her because she painted in a way I’d never seen anyone paint before. She had rolls of cotton and boxes of toothpicks. She would tear off small bits of the cotton and twist them tightly around one end of a toothpick, making a delicate cotton swab that she used to convey precise details, such as the white dot of light in a person’s iris.

She would mix the oils in just the right combinations, then apply the colors to the print and wipe them with a cotton ball, leaving a sort of pastel tone that screamed the 1950s and 1960s. I would sometimes think she was being sloppy with the paint but they always looked perfect when she was done. She had done many of our own photos and they are treasured mementos of her skill. Once, she was at somebody’s house socially and saw their wedding photo on the wall. She was certain she had painted it years before; sure enough, when it was removed from its frame, my mother’s initials were on the back.

(This photo taken with my phone doesn’t provide a true sense for the shadings my mother applied to this portrait of me when I was maybe three years old, but lacking a scanner it’s the best I can do.)

I’ve lately been curious about this lost art of hand-coloring photographs. It was apparently quite the fad decades ago but is rarely seen today. In fact, just the mention of it seems to bring to mind the cheesy colorization of black-and-white movies that has to stand as Ted Turner’s most idiotic venture. But a well-done hand-colored photograph has a very real charm about it, and as black-and-white photography has been making a comeback, so perhaps will hand-coloring.

Searching the Internet, an unavoidable and often successful task, I found a number of people offering their hand-coloring services. One, a former professional illustrator named Mary Ann Erickson, had some useful information on her home page:

Hand-colored photos are, for the most part, a lost art form. The technique of painting on black and white photos originated back in the day before color photography existed and flourished for many years. When I was an illustrator in New York City during the 1970s-1990s this art form made a comeback as its own stylistic look. The development of amazing computer programs like Photoshop generally put an end to the art of painting directly on photographs.

I decided to write to her to ask if she had more information about the history of hand-coloring. Here is what she wrote to me:

Hi Jason
Thanks for getting in touch. I was an illustrator in NYC for a number of years and took up hand coloring because I knew a bunch of art directors who wanted that look - before Photoshop obviously! Basically hand coloring was used to tint photos before color photography was invented. Then it hung around as more of an artform and a look that was unique after that. I think it must have allowed the photographers to manipulate the images more than they could in the darkroom as well - sort of a retouching tool. Again, computers and Photoshop have changed everything, but I still think there's a place in the world for a beautifully colored photograph - they become paintings! Anything done digitally will have a quality of its own, but it never will be something that's been painted by hand.

The coloring on my mother’s portraits is quite a bit subtler and more natural than Ms. Erickson’s work, but I like how they both take the realism of objective photography to another level of visual intrigue. I didn’t ask Ms. Erickson what her hands looked like, but at the same time I wouldn’t describe my mother’s hands as “beautiful hands, an artist’s hands.” They were good at what they did, whether it was painting, cooking, or soothing. It was the heart and mind behind her hands that was important, and I guess that makes me feel better about my hands, too.