Monday, December 31, 2012

Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge

Like a traditional riad, it's open to the air. In August the best place to sleep is the roof. There were always dozens of weirdos up there.

Here are some pictures. Everyone looks tired and sprawled out because it was 110 degrees the whole time I was there.

Top 10 Places I slept in 2012

 This post is inspired by JS Aurelius of

10. My childhood bed in Durham, a tiny twin. It's so quiet here, but all the most important books are within easy reach.

9. Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge, Marrakesh. I splurged on a private room (about $22 a night, instead of $6) during my stay in Marrakesh. I'd spent the whole summer sharing rooms, and I was ready to do some serious napping. The room was a sweltering inferno and the ceiling plaster kept falling ominously onto my face where it had gotten damp and loosened from the rooftop bathroom directly above. Bruna, my Brazilian friend, said that when the plaster cracked and fell off like that, it meant the entire ceiling could fall down at any moment.
 Hostel Riad Marrakesh Rouge, 2012

8. Friend's house, Turin. It was my jet-lag day so I fell into this bed when bright day had all the fun of night.

7. Tomato Backpackers Hotel, Turin. A spare single room with a private bathroom for 40 euros. After Arpisson it was unimaginable luxury. The bathroom floor, for example, was not covered in cow shit.

6. Azienda Agricola Casa Lanzarotti. I had a single room with velvet curtains and a lot of spiders. Some little animal made a maraca-type noise in the wall. Wwoofers no longer live there because Iris brought in some more permanent workers for the farm--I was the last one.
 Casa Lanzarotti, 2012

5. Friend's house, Milan. A high, tight, white bed that made me feel like there were bugs falling off of me because it was so clean.

4. My cot in the loft above the barn, Azienda Agricola Arpisson. I shared the slanted, attic-type room with Lucas and Allison. The air was full of flies. The view out to the town of Gimillan and the far valley floor was epic. My mattress pad was lumpy and flat as a pancake and I slept so soundly on it. It was nice in the morning (but not that nice) to hear Attilio and Gabriella coming down to start the milking, and know that I could sleep another hour. 
Azienda Agricola Arpisson, Lower Farm, 2012

3. Anastasia's bed in Baltimore. She lives in a row house in such an incredibly picturesque and old-fashioned row that her next-door neighbor's house is being used as a set for an HBO show. She has a high-up bed all creamy-white and lacy. She has always had a subtle and elegant style.

2. Lucy's bed in Eagle Rock. She lives in a little room in the backyard, that's made out of concrete and unheated. Cold air came in the broken door all night, but the bed was a Princess-and-the-Pea-style tower of comforters.

1. My friend's bed in the Cave, at my old co-op. He lived in a windowless single room with a sloping roof that must be about 6'x10'. It was meant to be a closet and his living there was against the fire code. He outfitted it with his desk, a lot of Leftist books, twinkle lights, a lava lamp, and a really nice stereo system, and he kept it spotlessly clean. It was the perfect place for watching the sparks from wintergreen Lifesavers, among other things.
Amsterdam, 2009

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My brother's dessert, 2009

Best of Skymall

 Art: You can run, but you can't hide

 You can also buy a box containing someone's grandma's hand

 I like her jeans


 Just like the Maccabees intended
 Does he not have legs or is he reclining on that golf course

I like that the ad calls him "this person," like they hardly know him or want to distance themselves from him

 But is it a laugh a minute

Bigfoot's going to go double-expose some Ektachrome

The American dream

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Little Video about Norway

I am very excited to share this little video I made, with footage from the Island of Lygra, and an interview with Ole Mathias of the Lygra Gjestegard.

Angel and Egypt, 2012

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Picking out the things you like

 Above: My palette right before I cleaned it for the last time, May 2012

In the fourth Betsy-Tacy book and the last childhood one, Betsy talks about how during the Christmas season they'd go to town and visit the department store (I think) where there was a huge array of Christmas tree ornaments. They'd spend hours admiring every one (in those days, they were all fragile blown glass), and finally, at the end, each girl (Betsy, Tacy and Tib) would pick out just one ornament for herself, and that one object would embody the spirit of the season.

Lucy likes anything with a hand motif. She also likes anything with suns and moons with faces on them (within reason). I find I like anything with an eye motif. I would buy a lime-green thing (my least favorite color to wear) if it had eyes embroidered all over it. In my painting, I never get sick of naked women. I've already discussed my love of sweaters, but in college I went through a phase of being particularly obsessed with taupe cardigans. I own about eight cardigans in shades from dark gray-brown to beige, and sometimes wear them all on top of each other, which is my idea of fun. Because of my habit of wearing three or even four cardigans on top of each other, and because of Harvard's habit of overheating the classrooms in winter, requiring the students to undress and re-dress at every class, I'd always be the last one out the door after the lecture.

Lucy and I went to the Folk Tree in Pasadena and I admired every single brightly-painted mirror and ornament of hammered tin. There were torsos and buttocks, flying skulls, hands with bright-red hearts on them, and dozens of desert animals. I lack the restraint of Betsy-Tacy and bought about eight. Lucy bought a silver ring with a large stone set in the top, and some silver earrings that look like tiny chairs. She is such a good present-giver, and spares no expense on the people who will really appreciate it (mostly her sister). The best presents I have given in my life are to guys who aren't that into me. If I could somehow convince myself that I was writing stories for a guy who wasn't that into me, I would be insanely prolific.

For some reason, creative writing teachers like it when they can read a story and tell it's yours, and painting teachers like it when you develop a palette that you like to use. It is so satisfying seeing classmates develop their own styles. I always felt, by the end of the semester, that if we showed a bunch of unlabeled paintings, we'd be able to figure out whose was whose. Even the wild "recipe" experiments of Non-Observational Painting and Monsters were about building up one's way of painting, not destroying it. In high school I was so unsure of everything, and in college creative courses (taken with mostly upperclassmen) they expect you right away to be sure.

My high school art teacher told us to put as few colors as possible on the palette, so I chose a selection of colors that I found exciting and authentic, and they are still the base of all my paintings: Cadmium reds and yellows, alizarin crimson, cerulean, indigo, pthalo blue, yellow ochre, various siennas and umbers, tons of white, and Payne's gray, never black. You can get a more harmonious black by mixing burnt umber and Payne's gray. The first story I ever wrote as an adult centered around a kid who was so obsessed with his watercolors that he wanted to eat them.

I've been having a huge crisis of confidence and direction recently.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Eggcorns I have known

Style Blog

In Berlin, my friend Sara told me that Stephen Prina, her teacher, always buys a pair of socks in every place he travels.

"But I'd be worried that I'd get all those socks mixed up and forget where I'd bought them," I said. I thought you'd have to buy fancy socks.

"No, he just buys regular socks," she said.

Imagine: A suitcase full of regular white socks bought in every place you've been. (Now that is style.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A photo and a story

We were working on landscape paintings when a heavy rain began. You can actually keep painting in the rain, if you're using oil paint, but to apply the paint to the canvas you have to push hard to get through the film of water.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A photo and a story

We drew those permanent-marker lines around the center of the eggs to remember that they were fertilized and not for eating. Of the nine eggs, seven hatched nicely on exactly the day we expected. One didn't hatch at all--maybe it hadn't been fertilized at all. And one started to hatch in the wrong direction--splitting open along the latitude, not the longitude. We could see the wet chick inside but didn't want to help it along. Iris told us to make sure to gather up the unhatched eggs because they would spread disease to the new chicks, but we lost track of that semi-hatched egg amidst the hay. Two days later, I found it--squashed completely flat, and the little chick inside it just a flat, sticky pancake. I carried it on a board to the trash.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some memories of New York, and Maitresse

More pictures from New York are in my "Summer" page (link at left)

The only movie I've ever downloaded illegally is "Maitresse," a 1976 French film featuring Gerard Depardieu as a sexy beast named Olivier, and Bulle Ogier as a dominatrix named Ariane. I think this is also the only X-rated movie I've ever seen.

Writing about this, I'm trying to figure out how much I am able to write about my actual self. How do you figure out your limits, especially if you've written all kinds of obscene fiction? Ella Enchanted, the masterful YA version of Cinderella, finally explained what it means when a fairy tale heroine can't do something. Why can't Cinderella run away? Why can't she disobey her stepmother? In Ella Enchanted, it's because she gets incredibly dizzy and nauseous. I think my longstanding appreciation for magical limits made physically understandable like that has changed the way I think about "can" and "can't."

I downloaded Maitresse during the hot and miserable summer I spent living in Brooklyn. Hot, because I avoided the AC as much as possible, because of expense. Miserable, because my publishing-house internship was making me sick and tired (though the house itself, and all the editors, were amazing geniuses), and I was mean all the time to the people I most respected, and I was spending all my money but barely going out. It was truly impossible to step out of the door without immediately dropping five or ten dollars, on a subway ticket and a cold drink. All I wanted to do in my free time was sleep, anyway. I was not good at New York.

Looking back, I did a decent job. I went to see Luxor Tavella at Paracelso twice (I discovered her store while I was lost, and went in because it reminded me of the now-defunct Via Bonelli in Turin). She told me about William S. Burroughs, a gentleman who used to come and buy presents from her. She picked out green beaded earrings for me, and swiped my debit card with an ancient-looking machine the likes of which I'd never seen before. She told me I spoke Italian well, and that the dimple on my chin meant I had to go out and get what I wanted, like a shark.

Luxor Tavella, and me

I also went down to the Mermaid Parade alone, and went on the chair ride, feeling hugely overgrown, clicking my Oxfords together. I went several times to the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, tested all the bird songs at Top Hat (another Via Bonelli-ish store I discovered while lost), ate Dominican food with my great aunt, sent all my clothes home in plastic bags because of a bed-bug scare, and bought Patti Smith-style silver skulls at Evolution. From time to time I ate dinner (four scoops) at Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I spent a weekend at the Fire Island Pines with Julian. In the dark, we walked back from the club along the elevated boardwalk, and we could easily see into the picture windows of the beach houses, each one filled with muscle-bound men lounging in gorgeous postures like Hellenistic statues.

Other than Paracelso, the summer's most beautiful moment was when my great aunt and I were returning from a late-night movie, walking down Grand Street (I lived a month and a half in her LES apartment, right by the river), and saw the crowd of men in straw boaters, highly groomed moustaches and three-piece suits, and women with pin curls and glittering drop waist dresses. They were the extras for Boardwalk Empire. They were filming a crowd scene in the historic theater of the Abrams Art Center. What a shame I didn't have my digital camera then. My film camera was too weak to take in the scene without flash, but the flash made my stalking obvious, and I was afraid my film would get confiscated. The extras were milling about eating grapes under the catering tent, and on the other side of the street was the wardrobe truck and the trailers of the bigger stars. I took a picture of a woman by a trailer, though I don't know who she was. All my photos came out like shit anyway. My great aunt waited, amused, while I asked the extras how they became extras. "You just sign up!" said one. (But where? I should have gotten specifics!) The extras said friendly, respectful things to my great aunt like, "Bet you haven't seen this in a long time, right?" But when she was a baby such outfits had already gone out of style.

Back at the apartment I took a shower. It was already midnight but I couldn't bear it, I had to go back out and see what the extras were up to. I HAD to try to take a few more photos. The street felt slightly dangerous as I snuck out. The pavement was still letting off heat; it was perfectly warm, even with wet hair. At the theater, all the extras had gone inside. I was so disappointed. But the tech crew was still outside, with tents, trucks, enormous cables running everywhere. "What's going on?" I said to a brawny man by the door. He explained it was for Boardwalk Empire. "What episode? What's the theater scene about?" I pressed. (I think it was episode nine, to be aired fall 2011. They were only filming the crowd reactions, not the performance that was going to be edited in later.) Finally, the man said, "Do you live around here?" "Yes, just a little that way," I said, "with my great aunt." At the time, it was absolutely true. I was a New Yorker who lived on the Lower East Side with her great aunt. What a romantic and interesting life. An American Girl doll life. "All right," he said. "Want to come in and see what they're doing?" "Wow!" I said. He took me firmly by the arm and lead me in. The theater was hazy, like it had been filled with smoke. (I think it had, for the extras' cigarettes.) Women in little drum-major outfits walked up and down the aisles, selling cigarettes from trays strapped to their waists. There was a big phonograph on stage. The crowd was standing up and jeering on command. The woman I had photographed earlier was talking intimately with the people around her, glittering through the dim smoke. The brawny man who'd shown me in was standing behind me a little too close, which is exactly the right place for a brawny man to stand. By the time he lead me out again, two minutes later, I was entirely in love with him.

I still think of that summer as a disaster, partly because one can never get enough done in New York, and partly because the Boerum Hill segment of the summer was so hot, so tiring, so nonsocial. For a week, I had Twin Peaks to look forward to, and then I was at a loss. I downloaded "Maitresse" because of a clip I saw on a sordid website (spanking was involved).

People always tend to think that my stories are basically autobiographical. I wrote a story about a girl who never showers. (Actually, I can't really remember if she showers or not--I can never reread that story because it humiliates me too much. It's called "Bread" and was published in the Harvard Advocate in 2010.) I know that at least several people came to believe I didn't shower. When I was thirteen, I wrote a story called "Elf Hat," which Stone Soup published (it was probably my twentieth submission, and by far not my best). I wanted to illustrate it, and the editor allowed me. They wanted a spot illustration of the Hanukkah hat that is the story's focal point. "If you still have the hat..." wrote the editor. But there had never been a hat! The hat was supposed to be hand-knitted, with blue stripes. I drew it with vertical stripes. I still wonder if it would be easier to knit a hat with horizontal stripes. I never told the editor there wasn't a hat. I could have been proud for having tricked her, but it was a mixed blessing. I love confessionals and I love first-person singular, and I'm pleased that my stories are convincing, but I'm mostly embarrassed. I don't want anyone to think I'm actually baring my own soul in all my characters' soul-baring, partly because I think attempting to bare your real entire well-represented and non-misleading soul in writing (there's no point in going half-hog on that, as far as I'm concerned) is a fool's errand.

A good number of my stories have sex in them, and some of them are online and easy to Google, with my name attached. "Write as if your parents are dead" is a dictum I've taken to heart; I don't think twice about the erotic scenes I've written, until people I know start to read my stories. But I come up against my Ella-Enchanted-limit of candid sex talk about my actual self almost immediately. My most explicit story is actually extremely explicit, but my name is not attached. It is a piece of Edward Jacob slash fan fiction, involving a very graphic scene of you-can-guess-what, which I based entirely on descriptions from my gay friends, because at the time I was completely innocent. (It's much easier to write creatively about such things before you've done them!) This story was already my most widely-read, by far (it's gotten tens of thousands of views), and then an Italian porn site translated the first paragraphs into Italian, with a link to the story, and it got even more hits.

The surprising thing about "Maitresse" was not its depravity, but its utter sweetness, its Hallmark ending. I'm not sure if I was disappointed by that. It suggests that even the most deviant people are secretly innocent and loving, which is a dangerous idea, because it is willfully blind. It was a very beautiful movie, but almost one-dimensionally tender, and maybe it hit too close to home.
Duc, Age 34, Azienda Agricola Arpisson, Cogne, Italy

So Long, It's Been Good to Know You

The best song ever written is Woody Guthrie's "Dusty Old Dust (So Long, it's Been Good to Know You)." There's a whole category of songs that have tunes so timeless and perfect that, even when you hear them the first time, it seems like you already knew them. My best two examples are "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" by Fleet Foxes, and "King's Crossing" by Elliott Smith. "Dusty Old Dust" is the epitome of that phenomenon, but maybe that's because all Americans have heard it before, somewhere or other.

Maybe we sang it in elementary school, though I doubt it. I would have remembered that sad priest and the people running home and drifting along. I rediscovered it in the dank cheese cellar of Azienda Agricola Arpisson, a small dairy farm in the Italian alps where I spent two months in the summer. The farm was positioned halfway up a giant mountain, higher than any town, but not quite so high as the glaciers. (The glaciers, and the summer pastures, were a two hour's hike straight up.) The sun set behind Mont Blanc every day, which bookended the valley along which we were set. The cheese cellar had a mouthwatering odor. I'd go down there and start breathing so deeply I felt dizzy. It smelled half like rot and half like caramel, in an exquisite combination. It didn't smell at all like cheese. In the corner by the door was a little machine, a neon-light hoop with a fan in front of it, meant to attract flies. Every ten seconds you could hear another one zipping into it and being flung, in small black pieces, around the fan's perimeter. The cellar held maybe $50,000 dollars worth of cheese, from giant flat wheels of fontina to small basket-embossed goat cheeses.

The center shelf held the cheese monsters--the deformed, the ancient, the contaminated, the maggot-riddled or rotten-out. They were bright red or covered with inches of black mold. Some were so soft your fingers sunk into them like milk. If you had to handle them, you would smell bad for days. From time to time, Gabriella would split one open, placing the halves first in front of the chickens, who would peck out the writhing maggots, and then tossing the rest in chunks to the pigs. We watched the young pigs trample each other trying to get to their food, leaving none for their ailing mother, who died a little while after I left.

Once Gabriella salvaged a section from one of the most destroyed-looking cheeses. She cut off all the infested parts, ending up with a small triangle an eighth of the size of the original cheese. It was creamy-yellow and oozy, with a truffle-like flavor. She sold it for extra-high prices at the market in Turin. With its pedigree--raw milk from a 30-cow farm where the low pastures are above most Valdostano alpeggi, one-off from an unknown recipe--I imagined in some contest it could be pronounced the best in the world.

Less delicious was the goat's milk cheese that somehow went wrong and puffed up in the molds like biscuits with too much baking powder. We tried cutting it into little chunks on our pasta, but it had a loose, loamy texture that was hugely off-putting, and then Lucas found some tiny worms on his plate. I have no doubt I ate some of them, but at the time I was living in above a barn and bathing once a week, without access to a functioning toilet or a refrigerator. We kept the milk cold in the water-troughs, or down in the cellar. The rest of Italy was dying of drought, and the Valle d'Aosta was so overflowing with water that they kept the troughs and public fountains running with unrecycled fresh water 24 hours a day. We put our butter in the fragrant cupboard where we kept our cheese and salami. The butter was always meltingly soft, and we'd eat a kilo in several days. It had an icelike flavor and was dark-gold yellow, verging on pale brown.

Anyways, the Arpisson cheeses were high-maintenance because they needed to be washed almost every day in salt-saturated water. Surprisingly, the point of this is to make more mold on the rinds, which bestows upon the cheeses a complicated flavor. As the summer went on, the shelves filled up, and cheese-washing became an eight-hour task. It was a long, lonely time in the cellar. I liked herding the goats and running after them through the meadows of chin-high wildflowers, stirring up masses of flies, blue butterflies, and brown and orange butterflies who liked to suckle my fingers. The cellar meant cold, stinging hands, pickled fingers, all day in a raincoat that got dirtier and dirtier with salty brown water. I listened to Woody Guthrie for hours.

I am almost tragically indifferent to most music. As a character in one of my stories says, I'd prefer if the whole world would just listen to one song until it was entirely used up. I have 6,999 songs in my iTunes. Of the 1630 that I've listened to, I have listened to 700 exactly once. But my very favorite song ("Gemini" by Why?) I have listened to hundreds upon hundreds of times. Come to think of it, I'm not sure these statistics are so unusual. I wonder what the iTunes of a real hard-core music fan looks like. There are, of course, the songs I listen to on the radio all the time (namely "Titanium"). There are the ones I always listen to on Youtube (anything Nine Inch Nails). There are songs I passionately love and never want to listen to again ("Suavemente" on the bus from Cagliari to Nora, with Adriana, the most interesting girl in the world, a true connector who knew all of Cagliari's low-lifes, her black hair flying all over my face as she screamed the song out the windows, or "Chan Chan" by Buena Vista Social Club, at a grill dinner by an abandoned farmhouse in a lonely clearing in the Appenines, someone's dog tied up at a stake and freaking out because of the meat, and someone left their car doors open, engine off, battery on blaring "Chan Chan" as loud as it could go).

I just discovered I have only listened to "Dusty Old Dust" four times, according to iTunes. But what a change it wrought on that summer! It was my anthem, I thought. But it's a soundtrack I edited it in silently and maybe after the fact. I thought I was always listening to Woodie Guthrie, and can hear his voice in dozens of memories, but as it turns out, it was all in my head.

Above: A WWII version, with harmony.
 Nerina, Azienda Agricola Casa Lanzarotti, Borgo Val di Taro

 Guard, Bahia Palace, Marrakesh

Here are some photos from the summer whose merits I didn't notice before. I made a bizarre, untenable deal with myself that I would not post film photos on my blog, because I was trying to get to know my digital camera and because I didn't want to repeat what you've already seen on my Facebook. But I think I have some more readers now than when I first made that deal, so to hell with it. The film photos are better anyway.