April 13, 2009





If you’re an artist, or have ever tried to become one, you know that the part of the human body hardest to draw is the hand. You can always spot an artist-wannabe when they present “finished art” wherein the hands of the people are hidden in some way—either in pockets, behind backs, under the table, etc., etc. A confident artist, on the other hand (sorry, couldn’t resist it), doesn’t hide hands because he or she has, to at least some degree, mastered their depiction. Actually, the skillful artist loves to draw hands because they know that after the human face, hands are the most expressive parts of the body, especially when it comes to gestures. On the other other hand, some newbie artists give up the game in frustration once they discover the difficulty of drawing hands. Many of those creative folks become photographers instead—as did Yours Truly, at least for a time. Or they try their own hands at cartooning (ditto), where the graphic standards are much lower, especially these days. (See my own limited efforts on this blog, and the many crudely drawn “Post Modern” gag examples in the New Yorker. BTW, the term “Post Modern,” as I understand how it applies to cartooning, means crudely drawn on purpose. The idea is to make an up to date graphic statement “against” professional slickness. Meanwhile, I’ve spent many years trying to become professionally slick. It’s all very confusing.)

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

Community Theater

October 22, 2008

November 1, 1977

Many people attracted to community theater—as actors or working backstage—are involved for only a limited time, anything from the run of one production to a year or two. Volunteering to work on a play, in whatever capacity, involves hours and days of hard creative work. It’s a huge commitment, especially if you have a day job or family (or both), and after awhile some folks—even those who love the experience and would like to continue—feel they have to drop out. On the other hand, there’s the long-term involvement of people like Sharon Weaver. (She’s pictured above as a young woman, rehearsing her solo in the Baltimore Spotlighter’s Theater 1977 musical production of Zorba The Greek.) After more than thirty years, Sharon is still at it. These days, though, she’s usually running the show. At a recent gathering of local theater people, we had a chat about the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” which Sharon is directing for the Vagabond Players’ 93rd season (the play opens February 27, 2009). The theater bills itself as “America’s Oldest Continuous Little Theatre,” and Sharon has been active with it, or with other local stages, a full third of that time. Now that’s a commitment to community theater. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

Rue Mouffetard: A Romance

October 15, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

Urban street markets seem much the same the world over. There’s a festive feeling naturally generated by such familiar activity, which explains why I felt at home the instant I stepped onto the cobbled Rue Mouffetard pavement in Paris. Emotionally, I might just as well have been in Cross Street Market in 1950s Baltimore, a boy of eleven or twelve, enthralled by the block party atmosphere of people going about their daily routine of buying, selling, socializing and just hanging out.

Rue Mouffetard is a remnant of an old Roman road. Some buildings there date from the 12th century, and in a sense the street represents the history of the city. Crowds of shoppers fill its lower half every morning, and its vitality is reminiscent of a scene from the Middle Ages. On my first morning in Paris, in August, 1973, my new girlfriend and I were still getting re-acquainted after my flight from Baltimore the previous afternoon. She had been living for a month with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a one room apartment. I had known her only two months when she left to begin her annual summer teaching break tour of Europe, so we were still passionate strangers. She had found a private space for us in a small, inexpensive “mom and pop” hotel near the market. Our shy reunion, at first a bit awkward, had gone pretty well—but now we were both happy to be out and about, beginning our mutual Paris experience.

And the first order of business was lunch. In the early 1970s few Americans knew much about France, and fewer still knew anything about French food. Growing up, my midday meals had been pallid sandwiches of ham and American cheese, slathered with mayo and stuck between slices of soft white bread. Part of my new girlfriend’s plan, she later told me, was to introduce more sophisticated foods into my diet. My first lesson came that morning as we shopped in Rue Mouffetard. My girlfriend, using her ragged high school French, bought bottled water, a round of soft cheese, and a loaf of naked bread (no wrapper, no bag). She selected fruit for dessert from her favorite stand, which was manned by a handsome young Frenchman. We ate while seated on a bench in a nearby park, a spot which became our personal picnic area on most of the twelve days we toured Paris. The following excerpt from a “Hemingway-esque” short story I later wrote sums up the routine during our stay in the city.

“They took a room in a small hotel in Rue Pascal and settled in to stay until fall. Mornings, they strolled the Latin Quarter, bought food at the market in Rue Moufftard, and lunched on a bench or under a tree in the Jardin des Plants. Afternoons were reserved for making love and a nap in their tiny room. Evenings, they dined with friends near the Sorbonne; then, most nights, they would take the Metro to the Champs-Elysées and either walk the boulevard, people-watch from a sidewalk cafe, or attend an American movie. Or perhaps all three. It was wonderfully romantic, they thought, as if they were living in a Hemingway novel.”

The guy in my unpublished short story is a moody character, not unlike me at that stage of my life. But the present day me, older and somewhat wiser, will always remember those Paris experiences—even the negative parts—fondly. After all, that is where I had my first crunchy bite of crusty French bread, fresh from the bakery and topped with delightfully pungent cheese. It was love at first bite—a life changing episode—and in that instant I realized I could never again be satisfied with tasteless yellow cheese on Wonder Bread.

The relationship between me and my new girlfriend did not always go well—either in Paris or later, when we returned home. In fact, the affair was completely over after only a few years. Without going into the sad details, I can say that the problems we had were mostly my fault. In those days I was neurotic, still depressed about the failure of my marriage, feeling great guilt about leaving my young family, personally insecure, and extremely jealous of my beautiful new girlfriend. (The fact that she was twelve years younger and eager—at the prodding of her mother—to start a family, didn’t help.) Two examples of my jealousy will suffice. I was convinced that she was attracted to that handsome and bearded blond produce clerk in Rue Mouffetard, and that she shopped with him each morning not just because his goods were fresher and more reasonably priced. I never saw them exchange a smile or a nod (I watched closely, pretending to be interested only in my photography), but they appeared to ignore each other completely, which somehow make me even more suspicious. (Obsessive jealousy requires no proof.) And there was another young man at a sidewalk café who lit her cigarette. All very innocent in retrospect, I know, but at the time I berated her for allowing him to do so. (Jealousy makes no rational sense.) Meanwhile, I was photographing every beautiful woman I saw, and secretly falling in love with each one. But in my warped view at the time that was perfectly okay. (Jealousy isn’t fair.) For instance, I justified the images of the young woman pictured here sniffing melons in Rue Mouffetard as a “visual narrative;” and that by moving closer with each click of the camera I was only following a “golden rule” of photography which goes: “If your images are not good, you’re not close enough.”

Here’s another excerpt from my short story, which I think captures my own rueful mood soon after we finally broke up. The scene is in a bar where the two fictional characters have met for a drink, the man still harboring a small hope that they might reunite.

“‘I haven’t forgotten,’ the man said. The woman was very tan, she had been beautifully pale in Paris. ‘A dry Rob Roy, correct?’ She nodded and he ordered. ‘It’s funny,’ he went on, ‘I thought now—after all this time—seeing you would be different, but it’s not. When you walked in that door I felt a tingle like the old days. That sort of thing must die hard.’

‘Maybe it never dies,’ she said.

‘Three years ago, in Paris,’ he said. ‘I never want to forget how that felt.’ She smiled, her eyes downcast, saying nothing. She remembered how happy she had been with him in France—despite their troubles—how well-matched they seemed to be, how much in love she thought they were. The man continued. ‘But when I think about those days I get a little sad, a little afraid. The fear comes when I realize that it may never happen again for me.’

Oh, it will,’ the woman said. ‘It just takes time.’ She was looking at him now. ‘Anyway, you’re forgetting the bad stuff—all the arguments we had driving to and from Lyon.’

‘You must mean, Ms. Navigator, the times you got us lost,’ he said, and forced a smile.

‘You blamed me for it, yes.’

‘Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction—right?’

Again the woman did not reply. She had come to realize that the miscues between them in France amounted to an early warning system, one that she had willfully ignored. He had been unfair, blaming her for all that went wrong—on the road, at hotels and restaurants—and at the time she had begun to hate him for it. But even so, she had convinced herself that it was normal for two people in the early stages of a love affair to experience problems that could be worked out over time. For his part, the man remembered the anger he felt then, the frustrations about where to eat, which way to turn at a crossroads, where to stop for the night; how he had to depend on her to read menus and tell him where the bathrooms were. Being in love and in a foreign country was overwhelming. He felt helpless and—fair or not—he had resented her for it.”

Well, that’s the end of this story, or at least all of it I can manage to tell in a short essay. The relationship ended badly, as I said—but I have no regrets. I’ll always have Paris, and Rue Mouffetard, where I fell in love with love over and over again; and—for the first time in my life—I also fell in love with soft cheese and fresh-baked baguettes.

“Rue Mouffetard: A Romance” is the second in a series of travel-photo essays which will post on this blog from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


August 27, 2008

This Doodling Life

If you’re at all like me you love to write in the margins of books, or doodle there, or both. (And what’s the difference?) And if you are really, really like me, the marginal writing and/or doodling may or may not have anything to do with the text printed on that particular page, or in the book generally. Our mad jottings may be provoked by what the author has written, but in many cases—especially when it comes to the visual doodles—the connection, if any, will be all but undetectable. While reading the fascinating essays in The Writing Life, pictured here (click for a larger view), in addition to the usual underlinings and asterisk-starring, I found myself in some sort of creative zone and doing an instant doodle on five different pages. These quick images, thematically connected, will lead off the series in which I’ll present full pages of text on which I’ve sketched and/or written something, plus I’ll add speculative comments about what I think the image may or may not mean. I’ll also include comments on, and quotes from, the essay I was reading; a sort of short essay about the essay. And of course, as always, you’ll be encouraged to comment and make of it all what you will. The first Marginalia begins below.

The Dance Story

The ecstatic cartoon guy above may visually represent the feeling a man has while he’s in the “dance zone” at a wedding reception, fully in that happy moment and in sync with his partner and the music—or it may simply show him home alone and transported by rock and roll on the radio. If either situation is true, though, you may ask what it has to do with Jonathan Raban’s essay “Notes From The Road,” on the final page of which we find the image? Why did the essay reader (me) choose to doodle that particular figure in that particular spot? Or was it a conscious choice at all?

The Raban essay, collected in The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think and Work, has not one word to say about dance, dancers or dancing. The essay is, for the most part, simply about making notes. Specifically, it’s about the obsessive note-taking done by many “serious” writers. For example, here is Raban on the writer as he dines alone: “So it’s scribble, scribble, scribble all through dinner. Into the notebook go long descriptions of landscape and character; some fuzzy intellection; scraps of conversation; diagrammatic drawings; paras from the local paper; weather notes; shopping lists; inventories of interiors (the sad cafe gets grimly itemized); skeletal anecdotes; names of birds, trees and plants, culled from the wonderfully useful Peterson guides; phone numbers of people whom I’ll never call; the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.”

That last bit is so good it deserves repeating: ” . . . the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.” Any of us who write know how true that is, how we struggle to find just the right word or phrase, and how it just comes to us sometimes from we know not where. So of course the essay is also very much about the act of writing, which often feeds off, if not directly from, those random notes. Later in his text Raban ties the note-taking habit in with writing a particular book, but comes at that issue from an interesting angle. He says: ” . . . the act of writing itself unlocks the memory-bank, and discovers things that are neither in the notebooks nor to be found in the writer’s conscious memory.” Then he goes on, quoting the painter Jean Francois Millet: “‘One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.'”

In his essay Jonathan Raban appears to be saying that the best writing, or at least the best parts of a writer’s output—especially its most creative aspect—is free-form, intuitive and impressionistic. If that is what he means, I agree. And with my small impressionistic doodle above, I claim that it’s exactly the same for a guy (or gal) on a dance floor.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.