Thoughts Inspired by a Helen Frankenthaler Painting

I saw one of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings a while back,  and while I was captured by the painting itself, it was its history that inspired this contemplation.   There’s a lot of yellow paint draped over a large, untreated canvas, the inconsistency of the texture causing the paint to bleed in volatile ways.  A subtle blue perimeter and a column of orange covered the side and bottom edges.  The painting is dated ’67-’76.  Apparently it hung in her studio, unreleased to the world, for ten years because she never felt like it was complete.  Finally, in 1976 she added an imperfect rectangle of red at the top of the ten-foot canvass.  This, she felt, completed her work.  At first glance, it seems curious that something so small and peripheral could give her such a feeling of fulfillment and completion with regards to the painting, but if you step back ten feet from the artwork, blot out the red portion with your hand, you immediately recognize its significance and see how something so small and seemingly unrelated to the core of the painting can play such a vital role in pulling all the shades together and giving the painting meaning.

It reminds me of the little stories we like to tell over and over as if they’ve gone into syndication.  There’s usually nothing too sexy about these stories, but we love to tell them much more than people like to listen to them.  What makes these stories especially interesting (and sometimes irritating) is the way people try to find any opening to insert them into conversation.  For example, I have a friend who’s a tennis coach who loves to tell the story of the day he accidentally explained something backwards to one of his students and how that student completely bought into it and said it was the best advice they’d ever received.  If that coach and I were talking about education in an America, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about politicians who flip-flopped, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about women, he’d tell the story.  Now that I reflect back, I realize there was a reason he told the story.  Our interactions with others and the way we perceive them are the nuts and bolts of our lives.  Moments that may seem insignificant are often the ones that provide the most clarity and insight into a person’s life.  It’s easy to dismiss these side stories as peripheral and meaningless, but what is in between the lines or what peeks over the top of the canvass are often more significant than what is easier to see.  What is also true is that these stories are often allegorical.  There is a reason we speak in allegory.  It’s the reason we have religion.  It penetrates a person’s essence in a way that mundane facts and details cannot.  It’s the red rectangle that punctuates the story of our life.

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Christmas Eve in Montevideo

Christmas Eve in Montevideo.  Early in the day there was a raucous party downtown different from any Christmas Eve celebration I have ever seen.  University students took to the streets of the historic district.  Nearly every store and restaurant was closed, but a roar of voices floated down the streets like drifting smoke.  As I walked towards the grassy plaza, I passed a couple of staggering women sharing a bottle of liquor.  They were immediately swept up by a group of shirtless, drum-banging men skipping in rhythm to their own beat.  It was hard not to get captured by the energy of the crowd.  I climbed a stone wall and looked down into a complete mix of faces.  My eyes stopped at every blonde head of hair I passed looking for Maria.  Did Maria mention Montevideo?  Maybe not.  But maybe Punta del Este for New Year’s.

A young woman with curly black hair and green eyes looked up at me and smiled.  She swayed with the music, causing her lime green skirt to flutter like a blowing leaf.  She reached up and handed me a bottle of rum.  I took it and swallowed a mouthful that my body was not yet ready for.  I coughed into my shoulder as I handed the bottle back.  Hesitant to join the crowd in Montevideo, I sought refuge in the iglesia matriz, an ornate church with shiny marble floors and an expansive nave, but oddly silent and empty on Christmas Eve.  I was alone with the ornate tomb of Mariano Soler, the first archbishop of Montevideo.  Was he really inside?  I moved closer touching the marble exterior with my fingers.  I sensed someone behind me and spun around.

“You are too early,” said a man wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt and holding a mop.  Of course.  Everyone outside would need time to sober up before they attended Christmas mass.

I walked the twenty kilometers to my aunt’s house along the beaches of the Rio Plata in Montevideo.  The waves lapped at my feet as I walked barefooted carrying my sandals in my hand (by the way, sandals are not meant for walking great distances as my blisters proved).  Along the Ramba, the main pedestrian stretch, men and women jogged or rode bicycles.  On the beaches, fathers playfully chased their children into the harmless waters.  Sailboats drifted across the horizon.

It’s a young city, a romantic city.  The sun was setting and people of all ages sat on benches, sipping mate, which they brought in thermoses, patiently waiting for the sun to dip gently into the river.  A raspy voice sang out from above, I turned around and searched the overlooking hill for the source.  It came from an old man sitting on the grassy hill.  He was sitting alone with a cup of mate in his hand.

Later that night I sat outside in the dark along the sidewalk of a neighborhood listening to a cascade of whistles overhead.  The Christmas Eve skies in Montevideo are illuminated with  fireworks filling the sky in a dazzling display of colors.  It’s different from the well-synchronized shows I’ve seen in the United States.  In Montevideo, color touched every piece of space in all directions.  There is something about light poking through darkness that beckons you to come closer.

Contrast that with complete darkness.  There is something perfectly laconic about blackness, but this is deceiving because even absent the myriad of tones, it arrives in subtle gestures and forms.  There is the blackness of mystery, and within this is the bleakness of fear intertwined with aspirations of hope.  There is the blackness of storms before they’re ripped apart by lightning.  There is the blackness of an abandoned basement defined only by the drips of a persistent leak.  There is the blackness in the emptiness between planets and stars, and there is the blackness of the density beneath the jungle canopy.  The blackness of a cave.  It is permanent.  Persistent.

A Poem About Tango

Tango Dancers
Tango Dancers in Buenos Aires


It begins with a gaze

then a clasp

a lean forward

a frame nearly collapsed

in one sweeping step

freedom and surrender

at once

violence

passion

grace

precision

greed

a buried face

legs intertwined until two

become one

ending with

love in déjà vu

Iguazu

The popular tale at Iguazú is a history lesson about the guides who used to paddle their tour groups to the top edge of the falls, and then paddle against the current while their clients peered over the edge.  This was a common practice until the day one guide couldn’t handle the current and the entire group of European tourists plummeted over the edge.  After the deaths of those tourists, the government banned such trips.

We hear so many stories like these that we sometimes forget their sources.  They’ve gotten so repetitive that if you start one of them, many people will stop you mid-sentence and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that in Lonely Planet too.”

The waterfalls at Iguazú were spectacular.  If it wasn’t for the paved paths and the slow Disney-styled train-ride with Ennio Morricone’s Mission music in the background, I think I would have enjoyed the experience even more.  Nevertheless, no photograph or video can capture the feeling of being there—hearing the thunderous roar, following the countless streaks of white through plumes of mist, or feeling the refreshing droplets accumulate on your forehead.  I followed the hoards of tourists across the bridges that led to a point at the top of the Devil’s Throat.  From there it looked as if the world simply dropped off into an unknown abyss.

For a hundred pesos I took a boat ride to the base of the falls.  Of course we didn’t go directly underneath the falls, but we were close enough to be blanketed by a solid white wall of mist.  I had never been surrounded by pure whiteness before.  It is difficult to measure the canvassing power of water.

As I sat by the pool at the hostel, I met myself in other travelers who are in South America without much real purpose at all.  Some are on a rambling journey around the globe.  Few have a set itinerary.  We find ourselves standing on deserted roads waiting for the next bus or pickup truck to roll by and take us to God knows where.  Where our lives intersect we swap stories.

Midnight Flight

I’m at the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my midnight flight.  My itinerary from Ecuador to Argentina is not a typical one.  I saved a couple hundred dollars by catching a flight from Lima instead of Quito.  Twenty dollars was all it cost for a bus ride from Ecuador’s capital to the southern border and ten was spent on a hostel in San Ignacio.  Though my ticket says Buenos Aires, the ultimate destination seems as clearly mapped out as the nauseating floor pattern on the thin carpet beneath my feet.

I bought a journal at the gift shop to help me overcome the stretches of boredom that accompany every long voyage.  The cashier gladly accepted my US dollars but gave me Peruvian soles in change.  I didn’t calculate the exchange rate to see if the amount she returned was correct.  Perhaps the game is played here as it is in Ecuador where shortchanging someone is a way of life.   It doesn’t bother me anymore.  I wouldn’t even classify it as dishonesty.  It’s just the way business is done.  There are no apologies when the mistake is pointed out.  The money is quickly recounted, and few customers count their change twice.

I originally came to South America—Ecuador, specifically—to see the jungle, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what I experienced.  Words alone don’t seem to suffice.  For example, there’s the humidity.  Living a good chunk of my life in south Texas, I know a little about humidity, but the word ‘humid’ comes nowhere close to describing the jungle humidity that will turn a package of Tic-Tacs into mushy goo in just a few hours.  And then there’s the mental effect.  The jungle can be suffocating to the point where sense of direction, time, place, and purpose are distorted in so many ways.

The jungle I saw didn’t seem to fit with the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family.  I remember a time when I was eight and I sat on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own.  I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses.  Inside the scrapbook was an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals.  My uncle explained that the jungle is like a high-rise apartment building.  In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas.  On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life.  Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.

It’s amazing that the world of the birds is a mystery; we’ve studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy.

I remember seeing a photo of a jungle shaman.  He wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck.  A macaw feather pierced his wide nose.  Then my uncle turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch.  The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey.  The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind.  He said the shamans called it, Cayramashi.  I grew up dreaming that somewhere in the jungle, perched high upon a kapok tree out of reach, was a bird as mysterious and enticing as the Cayramashi.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Consider Bob.  Bob wakes up at six a.m. when his alarm goes off.  He doesn’t want to wake up.  He stayed up all night playing poker.  He was up a hundred bucks at the beginning but ended the night with pretty much the same amount he brought to the table.  Kind of the story of his whole life.  It’s the price to pay for friendship.  His wife will later accuse him of being greedy and trying to win it all, but there’s no way she’ll ever understand the social taboo of winning your friends’ money then leaving without sharing a few drinks.   They would deride him for putting money over friendship, as if money had nothing to do with poker night.  The point is, he’s pretty bitter about not being a hundred dollars richer, and now the alarm is hammering into his head.  He has a choice.  He can go back to sleep and miss work, or he can get up and get ready.  Or he can take the middle rode and hit snooze, making a sacrifice with each press of that oversized button: first the breakfast, then the coffee, then the relaxing shower, then the careful shave. And if his flailing arm becomes so automatic in its slap of the snooze that he’s not even consciously aware of it until it’s 7:25 and he has to be at work at 8, then he might have to skip the shower and shave altogether and opt for a greasy swipe of deodorant instead.  Today he gets up on time as if he’s a puppet of obligation.

By 7:30 he’s on the road.  It takes him longer than he thinks to get out of his neighborhood because there’s only one way in and one way out.  But since he’s moving at the speed limit he doesn’t get the absurdity that even though the main road passes directly behind his property, it takes him seven minutes to exit the neighborhood, loop around the block, and make it to the main road.  While another access point to the main road would open his neighborhood up to thru traffic, that’s the last thing he needs when he has two kids who like to play outside.  Once he meets the main road, rush hour traffic is a bitch.  There are no shortcuts.  Apparently, others don’t like thru traffic through their neighborhoods either.  The city planners are idiots, he thinks.  And does every mom need to spoil her kids by driving them to school instead of making them ride on the buses, which are running half empty?  He convinces himself that if he lets that red Mazda cut in front of him, that that is going to make the difference on whether he is late or not.  He squeezes the gap, but damn that bitch to hell, she cuts in front of him anyway.  Everyone seems to be conspiring against him to make him late.

Didactic aside.  The truth of the matter is that commute times to and from work have been consistently about 30 minutes on average for the last 4000 years, as if that’s the threshold to which humans can endure without going insane.  Once, Prehistoric Joe probably thought it would be much easier to live right next to the river, but after one good flood washed away their clubs and hides and especially after the subsequent tongue lashing from Prehistoric Jane, Joe knew better than to settle so closely to their water supply.  Even Roman planners built their cities with a 30-minute commute in mind.   The outskirts of a Roman city could not be more than 30 minutes away from the center.  As we move faster our cities have grown bigger.   When that interchange Bob and three hundred other angry motorists complain about is completed, it will only facilitate more growth in the area and traffic will swell once again.  The half hour commute is here to stay, but we won’t tell this to Bob.

He gets to work, which, even though it makes him stressed by the end of the day, isn’t that traumatizing in the grand scheme of things.  He likes to flirt with Wendy.  Of course, his wife wouldn’t approve, but it’s not like she (his wife) can see him.  He’s a free man when he’s at work, unless he slaps Wendy on the butt, which he’s really itching to do, but he’s worried doing that might get a sexual harassment claim levied at him.  Damn those frivolous lawsuits and feminist laws that prevent him from just being a man.  Once a year, he and every other employee at the office have to attend sexual harassment awareness meetings and sign off that they’ve read the information pamphlet carefully and promise to abide by company procedure or else face disciplinary action or even termination.  Rules, rules, and more rules encroach on his freedom to reach out and meet that sumptuous tush.

Meanwhile, Wendy is the first of three generations of female workers in her family to be able to go to work free from the abuse and degrading behavior of her male coworkers.  She’s not a liberal feminist and hates when people label her as such.  Nevertheless, she goes home angry that her boss can be so hardheaded and that she’s been passed over for a promotion when she’s clearly more qualified.  She knows the real business, as far as the internal politics is concerned, goes on after work when the men hit up the neighborhood bar and share a few drinks before going home.  She’s never invited…anymore.  She was invited once, but since she’s not a drinker, she ordered a lemonade.  The others teased her before settling into an uncomfortable period of awkwardness where they weren’t willing to relax and talk until she took a swig of some real stuff.  A co-worker tried to buy her a shot.  She politely pushed it away, and he reacted as if she’d just slapped his momma on the face.  Damn social entrapments.  But she’s an independent woman, thirty-five, and still in her entry-level job.  Today on her way home, it’s Rush hour—Rush Limbaugh.  He’s making her angry—in a good way, she thinks.  She’s being enlightened.  She works her ass off and these socialists in power want to give her hard-earned money to people too lazy to work.  Her husband calls just as the show is getting interesting.

“Hey, hon.  I’m just getting off of work, but I’m going to stop at the supermarket before I get home.  How was your day?” he asks.

“Fine,” she answers, as if she could say anything else.  She’d like to tell him how crappy her day was—he’s her husband for God’s sake—but the times that she’s tried this, he’s slowly retreated into a secret tunnel inside that cave that is phone silence.  Neither of them feels free to ask anything that might penetrate their wall of security.  She can’t ask him where the money goes, because he might take it that she doesn’t trust him.  They don’t trust that the other can handle inquiring questions without becoming defensive.  So, they don’t talk anymore.  Really talk.  To each other, they’re just safety belts that come into use only in case of an accident.  One day, unless an accident saves it, their marriage will collapse on itself.  Maybe she secretly hopes for this.  Bob at work seems to be interested in her.  “Damn those lazy socialists!” she yells after she hangs up the phone.  She’s almost home when she remembers that she’s out of dog food and she’s mad at herself for not telling her husband to pick up some at the store.  Whatever.  Let them eat steak, she thinks, but Steve her husband will volunteer to go back to the store and buy some food, making her feel guiltier in the process.  She turns around and detours to the pet store.

Steve returns from the supermarket, and his wife is still not at home.  Did she go drinking with the guys again?  He went to a company party once and saw how Bob looked at her.  Is something going on?  Is she with him?  He can’t stand the thought.  At first he’s saddened, then he’s angered.  He calls her again, but she doesn’t answer.  Since he lost his career job when his company went belly-up, he’s been working at the Shoe Palace selling ladies’ shoes.  Doesn’t pay well.  Better hours though.  But he senses Wendy’s resentment at their lower lot in life.  He’s tried to be a better husband.  More helpful.  But the truth is she’s the breadwinner, and that’s just not acceptable to his family, especially his brothers who tease him mercilessly.  He’s also ashamed when they go out with her friends from the office.   He feels small.  Each day that he tries to be a little more helpful to his wife, he feels a little more empty and depressed.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  “The man is the head of the household,” his pastor said, but he sure doesn’t feel like it.  What else can he do?  Where is she?  That slut.  Oh, the love of my life, he thinks. We were happy once, right?  Stupid banks.  Stupid financial crisis.  Stupid deregulation.  Why doesn’t Wendy see that it was the Republicans that caused this?  She’s so cold-hearted and fixed in her ways.  Maybe Bob’s a Republican and is in to that free trade crap.  Free trade my ass.  It had a lot of costs.  Opened the doors to cheaper imports costing American jobs, my job.  Why doesn’t she answer the phone?  He’s feeling desperate.  He was going to cook dinner, but now he doesn’t feel like it.  He goes to his bedroom, but their happy wedding pictures on the wall make him feel even more depressed.  He goes into the bathroom.  Locks the door.  Here, he’s free.

A moral?  In our day-to-day lives we are free—and responsible—to make choices and accept the consequence of these choices.  We isolate ourselves in protected neighborhoods.  We hide in the anonymity of our cars where we feel free to unleash our anger.  While we are bound by some rules that are intended to protect the freedom of others, we are free to attack these rules as being to loose…or too strict.  We are free to tangle ourselves in our own abstract fantasies until we become victims of our own minds.  We are free to blame the government, though it has always struck me as odd that in one string of thought we can view the government as hopelessly dysfunctional yet still believe that this same government has the ability to manipulate our lives as if it were their personal agenda to make us miserable.   We are free to let our own fears and suspicions get the better of us even after we experience time and again that the cost of distrust is greater than the pain of betrayal.  Yet, we also are free to choose the things that will fulfill our lives.  We are free to consider that perhaps the things that anger us most are the things that really affect us the least.  Or we can stay angry.  We are free to embrace humanity, including our faults and missteps, instead of running from it.  We are free to perceive the world as we wish.

We are free to enslave ourselves.

We are free to escape.