Thursday, April 30, 2009

Homemaking with Roommates

Sometime back my friend Marta approached me and another blogger, Joanna, about the possibility of doing some shared posting on the subject of homemaking. We both loved the idea, and decided to post our first endeavors today (ed: I'm over an hour late, forgive me, friends!). The first topic we chose is homemaking: who does it? You can find Marta's essay here. Marta and I knew each other in college, but have been getting to know each other much better through blogging. With her I have a lovely sense of getting to know someone new and reconnecting with an old friend, all at once. For Joanna's essay, go here. I have yet to meet Joanna in person, but I've been enjoying getting to know her from her writing. Both other writers have children and spouses, so I feel like a bit of a fraud posting on the subject of homemaking in their company; my thinking will probably be pretty theoretical, compared to their more boots-on-the-ground experience. That isn't stopping me from piping up though. Go read their essays, and spend some time perusing their archives. You'll be glad you did. I've certainly enjoyed it.


"Compared to what we ought to be, we are half awake." William James.

"The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be awake, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." Henry Miller.

"Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences." Robert Louis Stevenson

Homemaking: who does it? Oh how deceptively simple that question is. I was tempted at first to be something of a smart-ass and say "short answer: me." I’ve lived most of my adult life with roommates. For the last ten years, while I have stayed in one place, four roommates and one boyfriend have passed through here, and that’s not counting the temporary house-mates (more than a month, but less than a year). In other words, the one constant in this space has been me. My three years living with Brian did teach me some of how homemaking is different with a partner compared to a roommate, but not only do I not think that's enough time to have collected enough data, I also don't want to put Brian on the spot by talking too much about our past. After twenty years of living with roommates, on the other hand, I do think I have something to say on that subject.

I wrote in an earlier post about how I seem to have developed very personal definitions for –and distinctions between– housework and homemaking. In a nutshell, I see housework as the basics required to keep a household going, while treating all the residents with respect. Homemaking, while including that, is also an expression of love: for one’s partner, one’s family, even one’s living space.

When it comes to housework, it’s inaccurate and unfair for me to claim that I’m the only one who does it here. My roommates have always dependably helped with bills, even if I’m the one who actually puts the check in the mail. Splitting expenses, of course, is the main reason most of us have roommates. With each roommate I have usually also developed a list of shared items: certain food staples, spices, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, trash bags. All of that contributes to the running of the household, and I don’t do it all alone. The other tasks I see as essential to running a house -cleaning and cooking- are where issues of intimacy come into play for me.

Let’s start with cleaning. Over the last ten years, I’ve found that while I cannot claim it happens all that often, when it does, I’m usually the one who does it. There has never been an attempt made in this apartment to have a chore chart, to divvy up tasks and rotate them equitably; no rules have been set down for what constitutes a clean bathroom or kitchen, nor how often it needs to be accomplished. I just do it, and I'm fine with that. I should acknowledge that a case could be made that some territory-marking is involved here. I’ll do the cleaning because I feel it’s my responsibility, and I think it’s more my responsibility because this is my place. I have the lease. It's my apartment, you're welcome to live here, I think I'm pretty laidback and accomodating, but you're the roommate and I'm the leaseholder, let's just be clear. I’ve been lucky so far that everyone has been comfortable with that and with the relaxed approach to cleaning; if someone wants the place cleaner, he cleans. (Side note: an additional benefit to being the one who cleans most often is, I usually get to choose the products used; over the years I’ve gotten fond of eco-friendly cleansers for all sorts of reasons, but since they tend to cost more, and require more elbow grease to be effective, I’d prefer to be the one who spends the money, and does the work)

I will also admit that sometimes roommates have occasionally gotten my back up by taking unilateral action on things I thought ought to be discussed, such as putting up artwork ('I’d prefer a blank wall to that poster'), or replacing furniture or electrical equipment with ‘better’ models ('the old TV is working just fine'). There was no malice going on here, I know that, but there were plenty of unspoken assumptions, and not all of them were the other guys’. I found it rather interesting what I was willing to kick up a fuss about (don’t change bills that are in my name, Dude) and what just wasn’t that important (I hate that painting, but is this a shared room or not?). I acknowledge that there are some double standards at play as well; I feel free to take some unilateral actions I don’t allow the other guy. Again, it’s my apartment. Did I mention I’ve held the lease for ten years?

Okay, so maybe some of my motivations to clean are less than noble. Ultimately though it benefits us both, and so far I’m just talking about the basics of playing well with others, right? Maybe a pleasant living arrangement has been created, but I don't think a home has been made.

Which then brings us to cooking. I’ve been surprised recently at how charged this task has become for me. This is what has evolved for me over the last two roommates; if we’re both home and one of us is cooking, he’ll make enough for two, or at least ask if the other is hungry. We may even sit down together to eat. Where I start to get antsy is when attempts are made to plan it too far in advance. The question "will you be home for dinner" sends me into a bit of a panic, and I’m not sure why. I love having meals with friends; shared meals is joyful part of time with my family; Brian and I had dinner together almost every night we lived together, and it was one of my favorite times of day. I firmly believe meals are best eaten with others. So why do I get weird when a roommate tries to pin me down? Why do I even use the phrase 'pin me down' to describe a perfectly pleasant invitation, one I would jump at in any other context?

I think what is at play is a sense of intimacy. We can have a nice dinner together, but don’t make too much of it. Don’t light candles. Don’t garnish the plates. Don’t ask me what my plans are for the day, let alone for the week. I don’t know, Man. Don’t try to pin me down. I gotta be free, I gotta be me. I’m like the wind, Dude.

I’m sorry, what? Who the hell is that? Who talks like that? Who thinks like that? Good lord.

Here’s what I think is going on. The thing about relationships with roommates is, they come with an expiration date. No matter what agreements are made, it’s understood, even expected that eventually one or both of you will find that this arrangement, while it was fine for a time, no longer serves your needs. Chances are somebody is moving in with a partner, or maybe into a place he bought. In other words, he’s now ready to make a home. The roommate situation usually arises as "this will do for now." I’ve had long term arrangements with at least three different roommates, spanning four or more years. But we always knew there would come a point when it was time to move on, and it always did. In every case we parted friends, and I remain on friendly terms with each of them. But we didn’t share a home, and frankly I think that's just fine. Over the years it felt better, maybe even more homelike, for the two of us to develop our own living routines, being cordial ships-that-pass-in-the-night, rather than intimates in any way. Sharing meals just happens to be one of my favorite ways to bond with people. Breaking bread with someone is an act of love, especially if I baked it. So it can happen with a roommate, we just have to tread a bit lightly.

This has all been a useful excavation for me. And yes, one result is I will lighten the hell up with my present roommate and get over my meal planning weirdness, even if I still prefer the friendly but not intimate approach. Another consequence is I may take something of a ‘love the one you’re with’ approach, and I’m not talking about my roommate, nice as he is. I’m talking about this space. Making a home involves creating a haven, someplace that rejuvenates you spiritually, emotionally and physically. What I have right now is a perfectly adequate place to stay, because that’s what I’ve created. And I’ve been making do with this situation assuming that eventually my real home would just show up, somehow. Frankly, that’s the same as waiting for one’s ‘real life’ to show up. This is it. You’re doing it right now, Sparky. The term is homemaking. I was so focused on the first half of the word, I didn’t really notice the second half.

As simple to the point of glibness as that conclusion may be, it actually suggests quite a bit of work ahead of me. There are some deep resentments, fears, failures, and regrets mired in this place, and they’re going to have to be dealt with. Good times. Fortunately I do like to clean. And that’s as good a place to start as any.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spring Galore

Last weekend I once again worked the all night drawing session I've mentioned in the past. It seemed like it might have been a smaller group, especially compared to last year, but there was still a lively energy, and people doing some beautiful work. I think many of the foundation students -who make up the bulk of the group- realize at this event just how much they've learned over the year. Their skill set has expanded and deepened, they've maybe gained greater rigor, then this event comes along at just the right point for them to rediscover the joy they feel in drawing as well. I don't know if that was the original intention of this event, but it's a nice result. As is often the case, I connected with some nice new people, including this artist. Marc spent the night in the costume room, which I was working for the first time this year; I went up in the very last session (starting at 4:30 am), right before the big nudie writhe-fest that is the grand finale. You can see many of the sketches he did that night if you go here, including the one he did of me, in my Dickensian garb. I think Marc deserves special credit for doing work of that quality at 5 o'clock in the blessed am. The sketch directly to the right is an excellent likeness of my friend Kika, who worked right before me, so, still really freakin' early in the morning. This draw-a-thon phenomenon (say that out loud, it's fun) is bizarre little undertaking, but it often has some fun results.

Much as I regret it, I am basically monolingual. I have studied other languages though, and that has given me a tiny glimpse of how different languages can create different world views, maybe even different worlds. The first time I noticed this was with a couple of translations for the word 'enough'.

Take Italian, for example, where the word is basta. I'm sure the word gets used in all the ways we use enough, but it is seems to me basta is a word designed to be a command. Its collection of plosives and sibilants, its emphasis on the first syllable, and its matched pair of vowel sounds all make it a surprising combination of bark and hiss that stops people in their tracks, telling us the speaker has reached her limit. Basta! Try it, if you haven't already. Isn't that satisfying? Sure, yelling 'enough' is clear; we know a person means business when he does so, but the sounds just don't have the same power, if you ask me. Enough is a gentler, perhaps more objective word. Only one voiced consonant (and n's don't exactly strike fear in a heart) an iambic rhythm, no, this word doesn't really command attention in the same way. It implies a middle ground, an acceptable, Goldilocks state, neither too much nor too little, no extremes or excess. It's a comforting word, in a way I would never imagine basta could be, though maybe fluent Italian speakers would disagree.

Then there's the Irish word, which is go leor. This word has actually made it into common usage in English, as the word galore, but its meaning is hardly that of restraint or a middle ground. As used in English anyway, galore suggests opulence, extravagance, or at least an elegant sufficiency far beyond a Puritanical idea of mere adequacy. I suggest this difference of opinion of what constitutes a sufficiency illustrates a key distinction between the world views of the Saxon and the Celt.

I've had a number of experiences recently that have me using the word galore. Something about this season calls for it, I think. The explosion of growing things hasn't even reached its peak yet, and I'm already overwhelmed by a sense of exuberant life all around me. Blossoms and scents are cascading all over the city, and as usual my seasonal amnesia has me marveling, as if I'm seeing all this for the first time. A sense of rebirth is easy for me to tap into at this time of year. Guilt and regret may not entirely lose their hold on me, but their power definitely wanes as I wander about an earth getting on with the 'business of life'. Spring brings out the Celt in me, where too much is never enough.

As usual, my attempt to organize my photos according to an intended narrative was thwarted by Blogger. So in no particular order, please enjoy my photos galore.

This clump of my little friends were the first ones to tip me off that it might already be violet season. I wouldn't even have gone looking for them for another week or two if it weren't for this bunch. They're in a very protected area, and are clearly early scouts for the tribe, which just makes it all the better for me.
Having gotten the heads up, I checked in with my Central Park field, to find that while most of the blossoms haven't opened fully yet, they are definitely making a strong showing, and what's more, there is less tall stuff obscuring their presence than I'm used to seeing here. I feel like I lucked out and got tickets to an excellent preview. I'll be back many more times to see this show.
Elsewhere in the park I saw this white violet, and below, you'll find a photo of a yellow one, that grew nearby. One of the reason I love violets so much is they always feel like treasure I've come across by accident, even when I know where and when to look. I also just live their apparent enthusiasm. Galore comes up a lot when I look at violets too.
Camille and I are coming to a better understanding all the time when it comes to photos of people. Witness this shot I took of my friend Burton (in front of the Metropolitan Opera) when he was here for a visit last week. Reconnecting with old friends (Burton and I have known each other for nearly a quarter of a century) takes on an additional sense of blessing in Spring, for some reason.

Camille and I still have some work to do reaching an understanding of color. But I remain optimistic.

Easter morning I was invited to have brunch with my friends Jeff and Genna. For once I managed to snap a photo, in focus, of handsome Jeff before he noticed and made a goofy face. It was not to happen ever again that day. I am pleased nonetheless.
This was my first time seeing Chula (yes, Chula; she came with that name from the pound) after she spent a week in my apartment. I didn't get quite the cuddling I was hoping for, but she, like her roommate Jeff, allowed me a photo of her without a struggle for a change. All the photos I have from her week here are of the back of her (usually blurry) head.

A festive Spring table setting.

My beloved Genna, talking on the phone to her family in Ohio, just before her nephew, my little buddy Rhys, asked to speak to me. Getting to know and love Genna's family has been one of the many blessings of our friendship.

Here is what I hope is a better photo than the one I took last year, of a bush that puts out an intoxicating scent. It smells the way a lemon drop (the candy, not the drink) tastes, if that makes sense. I still have no idea what it is, but I've now found it in both Central Park and close to my home. Sunday I think I stood next to the CP bush for close to twenty minutes inhaling deeply. I must get back soon, I don't know how long these blossoms last. Does anyone know what it is? I want to plant huge banks of it in my yet-to-be garden.

Right or wrong, it seems to me like the daffodils are later than usual this year, and the violets earlier than usual, resulting in a combination I've never noticed before. Daffodils have never interested me much in the past, but I find myself rethinking that policy this year. They've been spectacular.

Perhaps this image more than any other will benefit from enlarging.

Because it's early spring, I'm able to enjoy the austere beauty of winter trees, and blossoms at the same time.

I caught my beloved Melissa by accident in this image, but I loved the effect, even if she's cropped more than I would have chosen. This photo reminds me of something else, and I can't quite place what it is. Is it the cover of a Duran Duran album? The one containing the song "Rio"? Well, whatever it is, I love the way even this sliver of an image shows you the way Melissa radiates light.

And look here! I'm even managing to take a photo in focus of me with Melissa! And I don't even have that "I'm concentrating really really hard to hold the camera steady" look. Camille and I are making great strides. Can anyone tell me what this flower is? I love how this tree seems to be spot-lit.

This image perhaps best epitomizes this winter-into-spring time of year.
Near Bethesda fountain there was a moment I found myself standing between skilled acrobats with an impressive show (and polished patter), and an equally skilled string ensemble playing Handel's The Entrance of the Queen of Sheba. I found the acrobats first, and one of them said "if you see something you can't do, make some noise." There followed, naturally, several good excuses to do so. As I was listening to the strings, I realized that gymnastics and chamber music were both things I had dabbled in - and loved - at some point. That dabbling gave me a greater understanding of just how often I could have been making noise while watching both groups. It was humbling, but also pleasing somehow. I was able to keep the "you're a dilettante" voice in my head largely muffled.

I hope the sap is rising for you, and the season of new beginnings is inspiring joy and optimism.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Seeing Through My Camera's Eye

I think my camera is something of a drama queen. There are a number of reasons I think this.

A fun post over at Father Tony's on the subject of synethesia has me noticing once again how strong my habits towards anthropomorphism are. While my claims to being a synesthete are slight (I don't immediately see numbers, letter, musical notes as having colors, though I understand the impulse), it was funny to rediscover that I ascribe personalities to numbers (up to the first 12, at least) and letters. They're not detailed, mostly just ages, genders and some broad characterizations, and as is the case for many synesthetes, my sense of these qualities fades if I focus too hard on them. Nonetheless I have an idea of what the #5 is like, I know she (yes, she) sees the #2 and #3 as annoying younger sisters, and she has a crush on the #7 (and older boy, who barely knows she exists). Not every digit or letter is equally vivid; my sense of the letter X's personality is probably not as strong as my sense of who the letter B is, but I see something for them each.
So it probably isn't surprising that machines, with their activities, behaviors and apparent opinions would easily become animate for me. In the case of my camera, this process has been helped by the fact that it can occasionally send me written messages. For example I will receive this note periodically.
Warning!! Mode dial is not in the proper position.

Yup, bright red letters, two exclamation points (and Birdie would suggest this makes the camera sound like a teenage girl), and seriously, 'warning'? We couldn't just say "dial is between settings?" Or "pick a mode there, Einstein"? And there are eight different settings it could be on, why not say 'a clear position' as opposed to 'the proper position'? So, getting this response tipped me off that the camera might be a bit fond of drama. It was when I first got the message,

Warning!! Batteries exhausted

that I found myself saying (out loud) "okay Camille, geez. Lighten up, cupcake." And just like that, I'd found my camera's name. (Talking out loud to myself or inanimate objects seems to be happening more as I get older. Make of that what you will.)

I wondered for a while if she was Camille as portrayed by Charles Ludlum, but more and and more I think it's Garbo. For one thing she is unwilling to get as close to people as I like. With strangers I am still very Midwestern in my body-space preferences (which can make rush hour on the subway a bit of a trial) but with people I know and like, that is, the folks I am generally wanting to take photos of, I want to get cozy. Doing so with this camera, however, doesn't work. Maybe she doesn't 'vant to be alone' per se, but if I get too close to the subject, the image comes out blurry. I've learned that arm's length at least is necessary for a clear portrait, and don't bother using the magnification button. My success is still not total, there is more to learn, but there has been an improvement in my average.
I've also been getting to know her likes and dislikes this past year, and I'd say I'm the richer for it. For one thing, Camille has taught me a greater appreciation for urban environments. Where I would see nothing but soul-less cement, she might see rhythmic patterns of light, shadow and textures, and because of her I'm developing an appreciation for them too. This past winter I also started noticing the skeletal beauty of leafless trees. Camille may not get all the credit for this one though; I think I've heard Java, Birdie, Tornwordo, the Midnight Gardener, and my mother all make a similar observation. Maybe they have influenced me, maybe we're all responding to something in the air, I don't know, but if one were to look at the photos I've taken in the past year, silhouettes of trees and branches figure more heavily than I would have predicted. Actually, Camille's fondness for silhouettes is another thing she's taught me. And while we share an appreciation for chiaroscuro and El Greco skies, she sees them far more often, or is unashamed to exaggerate for artistic effect. On her side, I think she's beginning to appreciate overcast days more than she used to. I take credit for that. When we first started going out, she couldn't photograph anything but the most brilliantly sunny days. My Celtic temperment may be rubbing off on her ever so slightly. All good relationships require give and take.

Color is one thing we still seem to disagree most of the time. Not only will she see a different shade than I do (particularly when it comes to purple), she also seems to resist focusing on the rich deep colors I love best. You'd think a she would share my interest in stained glass, jewel tones, saturated colors or at least flowers (I mean, her name is Camille), but so far we don't agree, at least not on close-ups. Landscapes tend to fare better.

All in all though, I've been enjoying getting to know her funny little ways. Camille has gotten me to take more frequent walks, especially in places I might avoided in the past. I used to be unwilling to go alone to St. Nicholas Park, two blocks from my house, for example. There are usually lots of young men standing around in ones and twos, radiating what I can only characterize as a strong sense of expectancy. It wasn't that I felt in danger particularly, more like if I lingered to examine something, I'd create the impression I was interested in buying whatever they were selling (drugs? sex? I could never tell. I accept the possibility it might have all been in my head). Dawdling long enough to snap a photo though, seems to send a universal message that I really am just here for the scenery. So now I go to St. Nicholas any time I want. Being accompanied by another person or even a dog accomplishes the same end, so maybe this is another way Camille has taken on animate qualities in my head. I see her as company, pretty good company in fact.
Before some of you decide to drop a net on me, yes, I know what is really happening here. I'm getting to understand the workings of a machine better. It just should come as no surprise that I am tempted to do so by way of character and storytelling. The actions may be simple experimentation and practice, but the result seems highly subjective, even emotional, and that conjurs personality for me. At the very least, I've been seeing things with new eyes, noticing things that might have slipped past me before, and I'm grateful to this quirky little box for it.