When my grandmother died, my first thought was of a conversation we had when I was 10 years old. I was visiting her house by myself for four days, my independence as an older child and her failing health meeting each other briefly before continuing on different trajectories. I was saying something obsequious about my grandmothers house—her disdain for others terrified me and I never wanted to be anything other than her favorite grandchild, which of course I was—and she said one day this house can be yours. I did not realize until after her death that this is one of those things you say to children, and you never mean it. I did not realize that in the months after her death the long process of occupancy would be reversed and one day the house would go back to being as empty as when my grandparents bought the house and some days after that would be the last time I walked through the house and some days later I would not allowed to visit the house any more.
[For a second I smelled the exact stone and calcium smell of water wetting the grout in the shower when you first turn on the water. Instead of closing my eyes and drawing the memory out, I blew out my nose because I worried I was going crazy.]
I think I love that house more now than when I actually had access to it. The form and symbolism of the 1950’s ranch house means so much more to me—visions of blank faced David Hockney figures diving into teal swimming pools, Arnold Schoenberg watering his garden in impossibly white shorts encasing hairless legs, the mysticism of the cool Los Angeles evenings, the smell of jasmine in the air. The midcentury modern pieces in the house were oddities to me, and then I understood that they were valuable and only after that did I understand them for myself.
Of course I don’t want the house that existed as much as a fantasy house that I started to build in my head as soon as it stopped being mine. I want the house that has a small formal dining room with a charming pass-through built in from the kitchen, not the dining room filled with letters and documents that never got resolved. I want the bathroom with the original art deco inspired hardware, not the bathroom filled with the assistance devices that let my grandmother live independently as long as she could manage, and maybe a little bit longer. I wanted the hardwood floors that exposed the clean lines of the original design, not the carpets that made the floor manageable for my grandmother and her poor circulation.
I haven’t thought about the house in years, but when I wanted to take a look at a satellite photo, my fingers typed the address as my conscious mind denied that I could remember it.
Last night, after writing and posting, I did not go to sleep. I stayed up and read more Dharma Bums and listened to John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur.
John Adams is musically, for me, in that whole vein of Hockney and old Los Angeles and West Coast and Kerouac and Modernism and Buddhism and highways and style and yearning. The Dharma at Big Sur is one of the first new-to-me pieces of classical music I’ve liked like this for a while. I first came across Adams’ music in the context of a class on 80’s minimalism, but he’s not really a minimalist. What I love the most is the interplay in his music between tuneful foregrounded music that is not super outside late romantic harmony without being stuffy, and these lush and complicated background orchestrations. It is like the interplay between conscious and subconscious thought.
After that, my music app recommended Becoming Ocean by John Luther Adams. This is like music that is only subconscious. Like the ocean itself, the music is wild and deep and disorienting. I am not that familiar with his work, and even though the harmonies are not that far out there, theres an absoluteness to this music that I haven’t been able to wrap my head around yet.
Overnight, I dreamed that I was a freight truck driver headed west on 84 towards Portland. I was cold, but running the heater all night caused my truck to run out of gas. I woke up panicked that I wouldn’t be able to make it back to the highway.
I had enough time in the morning to write morning pages. The feeling that I am on a right track to awaken my creative brain…sometime…hopefully in the near future… is as close as I get to happiness, so I must be happy. Plus, I was wearing a brand new outfit, which is enough to lift my mood because I am deeply vain.
I forgot to eat breakfast before getting on the road to North Portland and our weekly staff training session. On the drive over, I listen to the latest episode of This American Life. There was this story about men that paid to be on a mailing list where another man pretended to be young women and strung these guys along as a pen pal, asking constantly for more money. This story was reported like 20 years later, and many of these men are still stuck in whatever hellish state of loneliness they were in to get trapped in the first place, and I was getting close to having some of my empathy circuits blown out just imagining that existence. It made me question whether my melancholy was a twisted form of optimism, because there’s a whole other way of looking at the world where I don’t have it bad not because my existence is so good but because there are infinitely deep wells to drown in.
Our staff training was as grim as it usually is. There’s a little anecdote from The Count of Monte Cristo that I think of. The Count is throwing an outlandishly grand dinner party, and is describing the lampreys that he has brought alive from Italy to his house in France:
Oh, do not give me credit for this, madame; it was done by the Romans, who much esteemed them. Pliny relates that they sent slaves from Ostia to Rome, who carried on their heads fish which he calls the mulus, and which, from the description, must probably be the goldfish. It was also considered a luxury to have them alive, it being an amusing sight to see them die, for, when dying, they change color three or four times, and like the rainbow when it disappears, pass through all the prismatic shades, after which they were sent to the kitchen. Their agony formed part of their merit—if they were not seen alive, they were despised when dead.”
When I think of the way that I’ve cycled so many times between inspiration, to disappointment, to anger, to numbness, to frustration at my job, I think of those fishes changing color like the rainbow and I hope it’s all amusing for somebody because it’s pretty tiresome for me.
I distracted myself by reading more Bums. I read through the beginning of Kerouac’s mountain climbing trip with Snyder. I kept being surprised that the book is so much of a homosocial romance. Kerouac seems caught in that space between wanting to be Snyder, and wanting to possess him. The writing comes alive when he’s describing Snyder as the coolest hep cat in all of the west coast, but there’s this weird strain of taking small moments as though Kerouac sees in him things no one else does:
We parked the car and got all our gear out and arranged it in the warm sun. Japhy put things in my knapsack and told me I had to carry it or jump in the lake. He was being very serious and leaderly and it pleased me more than anything else.
Kerouac’s enthusiasm for almost everything else—the nobility of the working class, the plight of the Native American, the wisdom of those crazy Zen masters—has to be measured against the colossal counterweight of condescension and self-congratulation. But his boyish hero worship of Snyder reads totally clearly, and totally authentically as coming from the space between envy and attraction. There’s a no-homo sexual undercurrent that comes up from to time, like when Snyder invites Kerouac to jerk off while he wanders away from camp, or when Kerouac is totally distracted by Snyder wanting to hike in nothing but a jockstrap.
On my way home from work, I stopped by Trader Joe’s for some mulling wine, and Movie Madness to rent another movie. I walked through browsing, and decided for no compelling reason on Olivier Assayas’ L‘heure d’été (English title: Summer Hours).
Summer Hours is about a lot of things. it’s about French culture, art, generational shifts, legacy, death, globalization. It’s a movie that I thought was going to be really pessimistic about the world that we live in, but that turned out to be touchingly optimistic.
At first glance, it seems like it’s going to be a King Lear story. An elderly woman celebrates her birthday with her three adult children and their families. Everyone remembers the good times had in her house, and the memory of their great-uncle, the painter that lived and worked there, and whose furnishings and collected artwork still live in the house. One child is an economist that goes on French radio to protest the existence of economic science. Another lives in America and designs accessories to be mass produced. Another has moved his family to China where he works as an executive for a sportswear manufacturer. The woman gives her wishes as to the disposal of the estate to her oldest child, he who stayed in France, he who will not let these products of French culture disappear into the anonymous hands of the international art market.
And the movie will play out. The younger children who have left France and don’t care for French culture will try and sell everything and he who truly had his mother’s heart will try and save it and he is going to be heartbroken because his own children only care about videogames and how will culture survive?
But that’s not where the movie goes. It’s way too smart for that. Frederic does adopt his mother’s passion for the estate and the artwork and the idea of keeping everything intact more than his siblings, but that makes him blind to seeing his mother as a person, in a way making him more removed from her than his sister or brother. He is completely blindsided by the idea that his mother had a sexual relationship with her much older painter uncle, an unspoken truth to his siblings. We come to see that Adrienne, one of the siblings, is not so much disdainful of the paintings her mother loved, but resentful that the painter, her uncle, had stolen so much of her mother’s individual identity by entrusting his legacy to her (Adrienne, with her functional yet beautiful furnishings, also is the closest to the actual artistic expression that nucleates this family). Jeremie, the last sibling, is the least developed, but he is the only person to openly express that his great-uncle was an artist with some great works but more misses. The movie constantly twists around these kind of expectations and we truly feel both the sadness of the furnishings of this other life disappearing and yet also that maybe this is the best outcome.
But not very hopeful for the particularities of place in the face of a new international culture. Or of French culture. Or of culture at all. Until the very end.
in the last ten minutes of the film, there is a radical shift in perspective as we begin to follow the youngest generation in this family, teenagers, as they move into the estate for a last party, playing basketball on the boomy wooden floors of the artist’s studio and smoking weed leaning against plaster walls. The house comes back to life and we realize that as the adults have worried about whether there would be any legacy to leave to their children, it has already anchored itself in their hearts and memory on the strength of the pleasures of running through overgrown hedges, climbing over walls, jumping into ponds, picking cherries.
The scene of the movie is where the elderly housekeeper is asked to pick one thing from the house to take for herself. She chooses her favorite vase to put cut flowers in, unaware that an appraiser has told the family its a piece of rare 19th century glasswork. “I couldn’t choose something expensive” she says, “just something ordinary to remember her by.” The twin to her vase goes into a museum display case. Just like with Frederic and the woman herself, Assayas is saying that if you build up the art, the culture, the whatever to something other than what it is, you cut off your ability to appreciate it for what it is. If you build up a painter to be a stand in for culture, you cut yourself from truly engaging with his work. If you build up your mother into a flawless person, you might be suprised to learn that you never really knew her at all. If you build up the historical artifacts of traditional European culture too much, you might extinguish the culture that is developing right now.
Summer Hours has so many layers and so many great details I could write twice as much and not get everything I liked in, but how lucky I am to be rewarded for sustained attention.