Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Art That Smelled Good


            It was perfectly warm, but the woman was wearing blue velvet gloves.  Another lady was wearing high heeled boots made out of a snake, and a young man sported a necktie made out of dozens of miniature neckties.    Oh how I love contemporary art openings!
            For those who have never been, there are few things in life more enjoyable than spending an evening wandering around a contemporary art show.  It can be at a museum, it can be at a school, it can be gallery, it can be at a contemporary art fair – it can be in Germany or America.  It’s all the same.  And it’s fantastic.  The contemporary art viewing crowd is out in all their glory, each trying to outdo one another with a new level of tasteful weird.  You gaze too long at a middle-aged woman, and she shoots you a look that says, “What do you mean?  I am wearing a simple black dress.”  Sure, lady, but that simple black dress is made of compostable garbage bags sewn together with Red Vines. 
            The key to looking like you fit in at a contemporary art exhibition is not to overdo it.  If you have neon purple hair, wear neon purple stockings to match.  If you must wear your bracelet made out of pieces of the Berlin wall, you might want to leave your hat made out of an ashtray and your handbag made out of a small garbage can at home.  Once, at a contemporary jewelry show, my husband came across a necklace made out of broken pieces of glass coke bottles held together with wire.  He pointed it out to me and said, “You know, this should be titled Stabby Necklace.”  Where would a lady wear Stabby Necklace?  Would she need to wear it over something thick, or would she just get a tetanus shot and hope for the best? 
            If you can pry your eyes away from your fellow art viewers and their broaches made out of ear wax, you can actually see some art.  Last Thursday, I talked a friend into joining me for a show and sale at a contemporary art space.  She and I have both taken several art history courses and feel right at home in any modern art museum, but we were stumped.  Half way through the show, we came across a row of four large rectangular tubes.  Made of wood, they were painted black on the inside.  After speaking into them to hear the echo, we decided they were probably there because the freshly cut wood smelled so nice.  Art for smell.
            We moved onto the “For Sale” section of the show and came across a rock covered in a crumpled up newspaper.  It was priced at 1,500 Euros.  It sounds a little pricy, but to be fair, it came in its own glass display case.  My friend told me she was worried that she had thrown away similar newspaper crumbles, and she should probably head home now to fetch them out of the trash.  She was hilarious, but I was distracted by the photograph of a jar of jam being crucified.  Another item was a photo collage of women’s body parts surrounded by red streaks.  A bargain at 900 Euros, I nevertheless think you would call the police if you found it in your roommate’s closet. 
When all is said and done, you’ll forget about 85% of the art you see.  About 10% of the art you’ll find so incredibly boring that you’ll remember it forever so that it can bore you long into the future.  And about 5% will absolutely amaze you.  Once I saw an incredible glass table.  It was oval and the size of a small kitchen table, but it was made of completely clear glass and was outstandingly beautiful.  It was covered in dirty dishes, oysters, a wine bottle, oranges half way though being peeled, turkey legs, and tipped over glasses, all made out of the same clear glass.  All melded together, all one object.  For sale at $28,000, it was just the sort of thing I would purchase if my art budget was $28,000 at a large art fair and not $10 at Goodwill.  It was amazing.  I hope some rich donor purchased it for a museum.  I hope that a century from now art history students will look at a photograph of it and think, wow – those people in 2012 lived in a magical time. 
Last Thursday night, after my friend and I watched a ten minute video of a flower opening, we decided we’d had enough high culture and left the contemporary art show to go to McDonald's for cheeseburgers.  I asked her, “Why didn’t your husband want to come?  Didn’t you tell him that it would be art, and so there would definitely be lots of naked breasts?”
She replied, “Yes, but he said it would probably just be two breasts stuck to a coffee machine.”  Now that is a man who should have been an artist. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Classmates


           It turns out that when I moved to Germany, the three semesters of college German I had ten years ago might not be as helpful as I might have hoped.  So, I decided it would behoove me to sign up for a German class at the local community college.  After a brief interview with one of the school administrators, I was assigned to a class of people who aren’t quite beginners but who aren’t really speaking well yet.  The classroom is in a large, cheerful, light-filled building.  Neighboring classrooms are filled with children sculpting dinosaurs and post-menopausal women doing yoga.  Overall a very cheerful, non-scary place.
            This experience was going to be new to me.  Back in my college German class, we were all Americans, aged 18 to 22 and, looking back, had a tremendous amount in common – including a common native language.  I think there was the one girl who was born in British Columbia, but that was about it.  In my current class, we have everybody from teens to retired folks, and the only language we have in common is the little German we attempt to speak. 
            On the first day, we went around the room and told everybody where we were from and what languages we spoke.  I am the only American.  There were some interesting stories.  There are those who are in Germany for love, such as the women from Belarus, Colombia, and Hong Kong who married German men. 
There are those who are there for economic opportunity, like the ridiculously good looking gay hairdresser from Spain who came as an au pair and stayed because it was just easier for him to thrive as a ridiculously good looking gay hairdresser in Germany.  There are two Russians and a man from Moldova who came to Germany because they can make more money here than at home.
            And then there are those from war zones.  These are places you see on the news, places you wouldn’t visit for a million dollars.  Literally, you would not visit these places even if someone offered to pay you a million dollars.  And these classmates of mine can never go back.  They are a diverse bunch.  The teenage boy who only wants to play soccer, the man who somehow owns every leather jacket from the 1978 movie Grease, the middle-aged man who complains that his four children always want to drag him out to ice skate, and my favorite, the teenage girl who works on her algebra homework when the class has its 15 minute break. 
            We are all struggling to learn German and find our places in this new country.  But I can go back home again.  For them, there is no plan B, this is it.  It would take me about twenty seconds to find a doctor or police officer who speaks English, but you could actually learn German faster than you could find a German doctor or police officer who spoke Kurdish. 
            Growing up in America as the child of two married, stable, healthy, college graduates, I had a privileged childhood, but I wasn’t na├»ve.  I knew there were Americans who struggled and didn’t always have food on the table.  I knew there were immigrants who were searching for a living and home in America.  But I never realized who truly lucky I am, how many doors are open wide for me, how many privileges I have because of the pure accident of my birth, until I became an immigrant myself.
            That being said, those classmates of mine are going to learn German much faster.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Wallet

It was the last few years of Bill Clinton's presidency, and everybody at my high school had to have a Kate Spade satin wallet.  I don't think they even make satin ones anymore, but they sure did then.  And they were beautiful little jewel toned works of art that rested perfectly in your hand.  Green was popular, and so was grey, but mine was a beautiful cranberry red. You managed to show your wallet off by use of an elaborate ruse, saying you were just rushing out of the house, and you just grabbed your wallet on the way because, my goodness, you were in such a hurry - and of course it didn't have a strap like a purse, so you just HAD to put it top on the table at the Mexican restaurant right next to your iced tea.  You were absolutely out of control if you didn't own one. 
My beautiful wallet and I went to college, and one day I met the girl who lived down the hall.  Her name was Linda.  This struck me as absolutely amazing.  There were teachers named Linda.  There were moms named Linda.  But there certainly weren't members of our generation named Linda.  Yet there she was.  Born in 1982.  I don't remember how this trip was arranged, as we didn't know one another very well, but one weekend Linda and I agreed to take a bus together to a nearby mall.  As we stood waiting, she pulled her wallet out of her backpack to extract her bus pass.  Her wallet was definitely not a beautiful mini sculpture plucked from a glass case at Neiman Marcus.  It was some sort of hideous polyester thing with nauseating green stripes.  My 19 year old mind raced - what was going on with Linda's insanely embarrassing wallet?  What happened at her high school that they didn't shun people who owned such things?!  She went to a fine public school in Greenwich, Connecticut – surely it wasn't abject poverty that caused her to resort to such hideous ways to carry her bus pass.  What her wallet did have, though, was writing in some foreign language.  
I asked - what in the world was up with that.  "It's a Spanish poem," Linda said cheerfully.  "I want to be a Spanish major.  It also has a picture of my brother and sisters."  Linda opened up her wallet and showed me a picture of three little children. It was a typical photo studio family picture from the mid 1970s. The three of them grinned against an orange backdrop.  Linda's siblings were 14, 13, and 10 when she was born – yet there they were in her wallet being cute little kids.  Her loving family beside her hopes and ambitions for the future.  And in an instant, her wallet became more beautiful than mine. 
A few years after college, a law student asked Linda to marry him.  She said yes, but insisted that there would be no engagement ring.  Money was too tight, and it was unnecessary.  Instead she had him sign a pledge that he would love her forever and love any cats or dogs that she brought home.  When he pointed out to her that the document was not going to hold up in court, she merely replied, "We'll see."  They got married on a beautiful day, and her only attendants were all her nieces and nephews wearing whatever they wanted to wear. 
Not long ago, I went to visit her, her husband, the two cats, and the dog.  All the pets were rescue animals, and the three of them only count five ears and two and a half tails.  Linda's home is a collage of interesting objects and memories.  The poster from the State Fair.  The wall hanging from the friend's trip to Guatemala.  The dog and fire hydrant salt and pepper shaker with the dog that looks like her real dog.  And on her fridge was a magnet advertising a small business in St. Louis.  It was my business.  A business that I shuttered after a year and half, when my husband's work got scarce awhile and real life came roaring back.  I threw all the remaining magnets away, I couldn't stand to look at them, but it was good to see that somebody was still proud of me for giving it a shot.  The business may no longer exist, but the magnet was a present from me, and so it remains.  Holding up photographs on her refrigerator. 
Linda's husband has a good job now, but she still doesn't have an engagement ring.  They decided it would be more fun to spend the money on a trip to Croatia, where Linda's grandparents were born.  And so it is with Linda.  She keeps the good stuff, the symbols of love, the reminders of generosity, the photographs of people she loves.  And her life has nothing to do with superficial beauty or someone else's idea of what expensive nonsense it is absolutely necessary to own. 
As for me, I am still using that cranberry red Kate Spade satin wallet. It's over ten years old and really starting to fall apart, but I can't bring myself to buy another one.  The wallet is nothing but a lingering example of catty teen girl silliness, but I carry it around with me every day.  And there are other things I carry around too.  They may not take up space in my purse, but I lug them around, and they weigh me down.  The class I could have aced but didn't, the friend I hurt, the missed opportunity, and that business that didn't work out.  They are all with me, and I am not yet sure how to trade them in for polyester stripes and a picture of my siblings. But last Christmas, my husband and I agreed that we aren't going to exchange gifts, but instead put the money in vacation fund.  We are going to Russia, where some of my great-grandparents were born.  I think that’s a good start.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Trader Joe's and Communist Poland


I love Trader Joe’s.  I love how your checker is either a super hot young person who hasn’t gotten a hair cut in a year or an eccentric middle aged woman wearing a hat in the shape of a pig.  I love the $3 wine.  Oh – how I love the $3 wine.  I love the $4 wine.  When my husband and I got married, we served it at our rehearsal dinner.  Let me repeat that.  We paid a $20 corkage fee per bottle to have the $4 Trader Joe’s wine at our rehearsal dinner.  I don’t mind the lines, or the waiting, or the spots in the parking lot that are only 4 inches wide, so you practically have to crawl under your car to get to the store.  If you can find a parking spot at all, which you can’t unless you go when all normal, responsible people are at work.  Now that I live in Europe, I miss my family, friends, and old job the most – but man oh man – I also miss Trader Joe’s.  Of course there are plenty of wonderful grocery stores here, all full of delicious food.  But they don’t have what Trader Joe’s has – and that, my friend, is limits. 
And those limits are the best part of Trader Joe’s.  You don’t have to worry which kind of the 45 different kinds of corn flakes you should get.  You just have 1 kind to choose from, and it’s Trader Joe’s brand.  Where there are choices, they are actual CHOICES, not some kind of bullshit choice.  For example, milk at Trader Joe’s is all Trader Joe’s brand.  They have conventional skim, low fat, and whole, and those choices in organic Trader Joe’s brand.  That’s it.  You don’t have to say, ok, I want conventional low fat milk.  Which conventional low fat milk from which dairy do I get?  Do I get the store brand that is cheapest but might come from cows that are not having fun?  That way I can save more money and buy more cookies.  Do I get the one from the fancy dairy that might have happier cows but probably not, and it costs much more, so am I just a chump?  Or am I too cheap if I get the cheapest milk?  Will people come to my house and see my cheap milk and think I don’t love my children enough to get them good milk?  Or, if I get the pricy conventional low fat milk in the glass container from the chic dairy will people come to my house and think I spent my money in stupid ways and am a complete asshole for being a milk snob?  Aren’t there better things to spend money on than fancy milk?  Am I just paying for the jar and not the milk? Am I not going to be able to go on vacation this year because I spent all my money on fancy milk in a glass jar?  But then again, isn’t spending money on good food supposed to be good for your body?  I mean, I don’t want to die five years too soon because I was too cheap to buy good milk!
The British have a great expression for this.  They call it, Spoiled for Choice.
And that’s the beauty of Trader Joe’s.  You don’t have to agonize over these internal arguments with yourself.  But, eventually I left the Land of Trader Joe’s, and I moved over here to Europe and met some nice new buddies.  One evening, an American friend of mine and I were talking about our mutual love of Trader Joe’s.  Our Polish friend who has never been to the United States overheard and asked what was so great about this grocery store in America.  After our lengthy, laudatory description, our Polish girlfriend said, “Ok – so the food is good but there are long lines and limited choices at this Trader Joe’s.  It sounds like grocery shopping in communist Poland, only high quality.”
And that’s where we are, people.  That’s where we are.  In America, we have consumer choices up the proverbial yin yang, yet we stand in line to get to shop like they did in communist Poland.  What in the world happened?  Do we actually crave having fewer choices?  Do we want to live in a simpler world?  I’m guessing that Real Simple Magazine would not take off in a communist dictatorship. 
  Of course, democracy and consumer choice are awesome, and life behind the iron curtain was repressive and difficult – anybody who lived through that experience will tell you just that.  And those of us of a “cough” certain age remember communism, back when it was something we really had to worry about.  My parents often told me how lucky I was to live in America, where we could choose what we wanted to wear and eat and say and read.  But somewhere along the line, something about that consumer choice thing went a bit too far.  At some point we got tired of spending all that mental energy trying to figure out which of the thirty-one flavors we wanted.  At some point it ceased to matter what we chose.  All those thirty-one flavors are delicious.  What mattered was that we had the opportunity to make the choice.  And every time someone goes to Trader Joe’s, he or she makes the choice – consciously makes the very important choice - to decide, “You know what, I’m happier with fewer consumer choices.”