My Mother, a Stranger, and a Tree

img_3646
Today is Easter, and many memories are in the air I breathe. One wafts over me: I am attending an Easter Parade with my mother. It is the late fifties. I am seven or eight and wearing a light-weight lavender spring coat (who has one any more?) and a white bonnet with frothy purple flowers above the brim. My mother’s attire has escaped my memory, but I know she has on something equally dressy and very unlike what she or I will be wearing come the sixties, seventies, and decades beyond.

It is too windy and cold to be wearing these scanty items but it is a girl-woman thing, and we feel the need to dress this way for the occasion. I  hold on to my delightful hat to keep it from blowing away. When this memory itself blows away, I long not for that particular time and place but to have my mother by my side again.

And, in a sense, she does become a presence today as I stroll with Oliver down to the United Nations and Dag Hammarskjold plazas. When I first moved into the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan, in 1976, my mother often took the Broadway bus, the 104, down to meet me here for an brisk, inexpensive lunch at the small coffee shop on the lower level of the main building. Then we would check out the not-very-pricey jewelry in the the gift shop. I still have some fragile, dangling garnet earrings my mother purchased for me there. Afterwards, we’d walk out together, and if it was spring, stroll up and down the pathways between rows and rows of cherry blossom trees.

My mother was a lover of trees and these were among her favorites. Later she would do Chinese brush paintings of them under the tutelage of an artist from Shanghai, Lydia Chang. She told me the trees were like fresh laundry on a line. We relished that freshness together.

Those trees were on my mind as Oliver and I walked down 47th Street toward home. Because of a crazy man on a skate board who yelled at Ollie, “I’m going to get your ball,” we stepped into the hidden garden kept by Holy Family Church, which neighbors The Japan Society. I was a bit scared that the man yelling at us would follow us in and actually try to grab my dog’s well-worn tennis ball out of his mouth, but we were safe in this sanctuary.

Oliver likes the secretiveness of the place and the small goldfish pond there. I, too, like to watch the fish swish about, and I also like the sweet sculpture of a young Mary, looking a bit ecstatic, toward the back of the garden.

When we turned back toward the garden’s gate, I saw a tree I’d never seen (or noticed) before, budding and flowering all over with coral-pink buds and fully open blossoms. What kind of tree was it? Should I google it on my PlantSnap app? No, that would alter the mood, and anyway, the answer was immediately forthcoming.

img_3649A woman I figured to be about ten years older than I came into the small garden and stood nearby. She held an iPad awkwardly in her hands and was intent on photographing the tree. “Is it some sort of rose,” I asked her, knowing my ignorance. “No, No,” she said, “It’s a camellia.”

She needed to talk and  proceeded to explain that she had been waiting for the buds to open fully, and that this year, because of the cold, they were late. We began to talk about the City’s hidden gardens and about the splendors of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I was a little surprised when she blurted out, “That stupid UN.” Then something about how that stupid place had eliminated those marvelous cherry blossom trees.

img_3648This talkative stranger with a heavy Asian accent that was at times hard to follow, did ease my mind, however, when she told me that the trees hadn’t been thrown out. Someone had taken them and replanted them in another garden.

img_3650

Longing for Spring

image_542131646549391
Black Dog at Cabin Window. Oil on Canvas.

The first thing I looked for this morning was the 6 to 8 inches of snow that wasn’t there. I was almost disappointed that the storm hadn’t materialized, though I would have had to coax Oliver’s paws into those silly cerulean rubber booties, which is a pain. Is this nor’easter going to be the last threat of big snow? Is warm sun around the bend? How are the hundred or so tulip, jonquil, yarrow, and iris bulbs I planted last October doing in the frozen earth up in the Northern Catskills? I hope no critters ate them as treats.

Slush, rain pattering—
We walk out, cerulean
booties on dog feet

The painting above is courtesy of my favorite artist, Pierre Bonnard.

Blue Day

 

nude_in_the_bathtub_and_small_dog_2
Bather. 1935. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Oliver’s been extra antsy today. He can’t get enough play, treats, socks, or balls. And he won’t leave me alone when I try to be quiet and read or write or just scribble and ponder.

The weather’s dark, rainy, and indistinct. I waited until the late afternoon to go out, and I didn’t stay in the open air long, even though it’s warm (50ish degrees) and soft on the skin. The rain was almost gone by the time I emerged with Oliver on the street.

The lack of light and contrast between light and dark gets to me. I become blue and unsure of myself and my path. I worked on a haiku about a homeless man, which didn’t make me feel any better.

On a day like today, the best thing for me would be to go look at paintings by a great colorist like Bonnard, whose settings and colors and women and dogs make me endlessly hungry for more life and more color.

I loved Bonnard before I had a dog. This is probably why I never noticed the dogs in his paintings or knew that he had done quite a few paintings of dogs, including poodles and greyhounds. Once I got Oliver, all images of dogs intrigued me, so I was particularly happy that Bonnard had rendered them in his own unique way with his paint brush.

Here are just a few of the Bonnard paintings I love. They cheer me up for some reason. If you’re feeling blue too, I hope they make you feel better.

4pierre-bonnard-two-poodles
Two Poodles. 1891. Oil on Canvas. Southhampton City Art Gallery.

sbonnard81.jpg
The Red-Checkered Tablecloth. 1910. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Discrimination: What I Learned from My Dog

cropped-dscn1278.jpg

When I first got Oliver, he was eleven weeks old and weighed about four pounds. I didn’t know a good vet, so I went online and searched areas nearby.  After looking at various sites and reading the dog owners’  reviews, I chose Dr. Peter Kross, whose practice was not far from Turtle Bay, where I live. Nervously and ineptly, I packed up the puppy in some sort of square bag contraption with straps (think of the boxes women used to wear in cigar, cigarette, tiparillo ads) so that I could take him home on the bus. I walked down past the United Nations, past many guards, on First Avenue to the Rivergate Veterinary Clinic.

Dr. Kross’s clinic is in a tiny space on 37th Street, close to the Bideawee Animal Shelter and the FDR Drive. I had never been a part of the dog/cat lover world before, and everything about the experience was new to me. Dr. Kross was easygoing. He had a sly sense of humor and an appealing, breezy physical presence. “Did you get Oliver because you wanted a guard dog,” he asked me. I thought he was joking, and maybe he was. I said, “No, of course not.” (The puppy was so tiny and vulnerable at that time.) However, Oliver, possessing a hyper-alert temperament and a very loud, tenor bark, did actually develop into an excellent guard dog.

Right away, I was struck by the affection Dr. Kross displayed with Oliver. He told Oliver how beautiful he was, and he hugged and I think kissed him. How different the dog-vet visit was from my own or my 97-year-old mother’s visits to the doctor: no encouraging compliments or gestures of kindly affection for us.

Most important, Dr. Kross advised me to develop several habits with Oliver right away:

  1. Get him used to you touching his feet and mouth.
  2. Start brushing his teeth, and do it regularly.
  3. Make sure he gets at least two hours of exercise/walks, even if you have to play with him in the hallway of your apartment building: A tired dog is a good dog!
  4. Expose him to people of all races, types, and ages, including people who wear uniforms or appear different in some way.

As I took the bus home with Oliver squirming in that awkward square carrier, I thought about what the vet had said. And I tried to follow all of it, though I wasn’t so regular about brushing the puppy’s teeth in the beginning, and I still fall off from time to time.

Of all the items Dr. Kross mentioned, Number 4 has been the most critical, and it has been on my mind a lot this past week. Most likely, I am mulling over “expose him to people of all races,” because of what has been happening in the past year in this country.

Let’s go back to me and my young dog. It was easy to expose my new puppy to people of color because my mother was still living on 123rd Street and Broadway, my childhood hood. Eight years back, the neighborhood was the Edge of Harlem to me, even though some businesses were beginning to refer to the area as SoHa (short for South Harlem). Gentrification and Columbia University’s expansion were still in their infancy. Now the neighborhood is changing so fast, I can’t keep up with all the new restaurants that have opened and the luxury hi-rises going up.

I didn’t want my dog to dislike anybody because of race or outfit, so I made sure Oliver met people of different ages, colors, and professions. I walked up to guards, police, mail men and women. I let young children touch him (with much cautionary advice). Oliver is “black and beautiful,” and many black people would stop to admire him and his color and call him “blackie”.  (They still do, though his chin has become a bit gray.)

Dr. Kross’s advice paid off in large measure. Though I admit we had a couple of unpleasant “racist dog” incidents. One occurred in a laundromat in the country. Oliver was playing with a group of white youngsters when a Mexican family came in to do their wash. Suddenly, he changed and started barking at the Hispanic children, and I believe it was because they weren’t white or familiar. I apologized to the family for my dog’s behavior but the incident unnerved and saddened me. Another failure of mine involved people with physical challenges. I didn’t anticipate early enough that people in electronic wheelchairs or scooters would be foreign and, hence, frightening to my dog. I have not been able to change Oliver’s behavior on this score. Whenever he encounters a person in such a device, he feels threatened and barks at the person. At least he is not afraid of the many elders who use walkers.  My mother, whom he knew from the beginning (and until her death), regularly used one.

When I think about how I tried to raise my dog, I see parallels to how my parents raised me. My mother and father exposed me from the very start to all kinds of people. At age 3 and 4, three of my closest friends were Adina, Leo, and Eva. Adina was black, and Leo and Eva were Chinese-American siblings. We played together often. Because my parents exposed me in a natural way to racial differences, I knew nothing about racism as a young child. My nursery and elementary schools were fully integrated like the neighborhood itself. I didn’t hear racist language at home or at school. It wasn’t until my friend Adina accompanied me to Long Island to visit my grandparents that a kid from the block there told me an off-color joke with the n-word in it. I didn’t really get it, so I asked to my mother what it meant. She told me that I should never use that word, and she impressed upon me how that word would cause injury, the same kind of hurt she had experienced when people had used the word wop with her. 

Words meant a lot to both of my parents, and my mother was particularly sensitive to racial and ethnic slurs. Her forebears came from Furore and Positano, Italy.  She and her mother, and some of her siblings, had dark skin and dark hair. Because of the prejudice against Italians when my mother was growing up, her family felt shame about being dark. This attuned her to racial discrimination at an early age.  My father, who was white as white can be, and freckled all over, was named Justus. Maybe he felt the way he did about equality and justice because his father was a Baptist minister and his mother, whom I never met, was by all accounts an extremely kind, generous, and open-minded person.  I’m sure my father’s love of jazz and admiration for so many black musicians and singers had an influence. I like to think that just because my parents were good people, they stood firmly against racism and discrimination of any kind and did their best to pass their principles on to me.

I have been thinking about the white problem in the United States, and about how easily it could be prevented in children if white parents made a point of including children of all backgrounds and colors in their children’s lives. What if American communities were better integrated and comprised people of many races and religions, so that exposure to all types came naturally and early on?

I do believe that being with children all colors and religious and cultural backgrounds would enrich the children’s lives and be a lifelong inoculation against racism. White parents could help to bring this about but they’d have to want to, and, for some, that isn’t the case.

 

 

 

 

The Women’s March

The Women’s March in New York City had the same feeling of upbeat camaraderie as last year’s march in D.C.  My friends and I spent much of the time standing in place with like-minded resisters–admiring signs and buttons, babies and dogs–waiting for the go-ahead to march down Avenue of the Americas. Despite the good feeling and aroused mood of the crowd, this past year under a would-be despot has taken a toll on those of us who care about justice, freedom, opportunity, equality, and just plain old kindness. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the weight of the work ahead.

img_2978

I believe it is important to march, to show up in numbers, and stand firm in our resistance to the man in office and his racist, sexist, and exclusionary policies. It is even more important to convince people to vote–and in their own interests, not because they have fallen for propaganda and lies or because, out of their own dissatisfactions, they have turn against others who are equally or even more vulnerable (e.g., minorities, immigrants, and refugees).

When I was a day laborer in publishing, I thought that not working for someone else would be bliss. I never imagined that I would be called upon (by my conscience) to battle a despotic president whose policies go against all things I hold dear, which was the case in 2017.

I often share with other dog people on the street what a door man said to me when I first got Oliver: “Dogs are so much nicer than people.” During the march, I stopped often to admire various dogs of different types: an elegant blue doberman (who stepped out of her brownstone on 71st Street to see what was going on) and two little white fluff muffins (maybe bichons-poodle mixes?) sitting next to a woman in a pussyhat. Dogs always lift my mood.

image_538370037356598

img_2928

The Snow Is Gone

Sirius from NASA

I’m not sure whether to be glad or sad that the city snow drifts have disappeared. In the city, the snow begins with astounding purity but is soon so dirty and dog-paw-befouling, it’s hard to imagine that the two snows are the same element.

I do miss watching Oliver bound about at Amster Yard on East 49th Street in the untouched snow as I threw him snowballs that dissolved before he could touch them.I wish I had taken a photograph of him thigh-deep (he’s a mini poodle, after all, though a tall one–a big mini, I say) in the snow drifts. He has to use a lot of energy to rise up and down, in and out of the snow.

My haiku-a-day promise to myself has been productive, if not entirely satisfying. To get the immensity of this cosmos, outside and within, into three short lines is a challenge. The form shows me just how verbose my writing can be. My goal now is to use as few words as possible. Here is one recent attempt:

Dog star, your sapphire
signature piercing cold air:
Is beauty worth it?

Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Bond (STScI) and M. Barstow (University of Leicester)

 

 

 

Making This Year Different

In 2018 I want to do the things I care deeply about, and those that provide the most pleasure (to me and others) on a daily basis. That means walking, writing, reading, practicing tai chi, playing with my dog, Oliver, and experiencing some kind of beauty–natural or made by human hands. I also hope to write a weekly blog about my personal, political, and aesthetic thoughts and experiences.

I know that I have made promises to myself in previous years, and not always kept them. This year I am determined to be different.

At the beginning of January, I began to write at least one haiku (an attempt at one, that is) per day. Like a great picture book for children, this subtle poetic form is much harder to do well than it looks. Basho, Issa, and Buson do it best.

Here is the only haiku I have written so far this month that I am the least bit pleased with. As fate would have it, my dog is in it:

Face afresh with snow 
the dog dunks his head again.
Some thrills don’t go away.

 

A Woman and Three Big Dogs in a Convertible

IMG_0559

 

Yesterday, Ollie and I encountered a most spectacular woman in an iridescent frog-green convertible who shared the small, lowdown seats with three enormous, friendly, lounging dogs. We were transfixed. I petted the pup between the front and back seats. When the woman slowly pulled away, I saw that her California plates read Be ♥ Fine. What an uplift! I wanted to jump in with Ollie, and drive away with her.

My Dog, My Refuge

I have been calling representatives and senators, signing petitions, and donating money to various organizations for the past two weeks.The confirmation of Betsy DeVos today hit me (and millions of other concerned citizens) pretty hard. After the news came through, for comfort, I turned my attention away and towards my dear Oliver, and all the other dogs I’ve met in the real world and in art.

In this photo, I sense Oliver’s complex brand of thinking: meditative, questioning, taking care of, and angling for attention and treats.oliver-in-chair-2-2017