Renovation: Right in the Thick of It

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I sit today at my computer perch, words fail to describe the renovation chaos we are currently existing within here in our tiny abode. We kicked off the fun with a mandatory window replacement project requiring that the entire contents of the apartment shift to the interior most side and be covered against ages old flying plaster as the windows were taken from their frames. Brawny men used power tools to yank out the old and then sheer strength to bring in the new.

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Kim somehow manages to continue working on some tracing as the windows get yanked out and then replaced. This taken from my spot at the computer – the only choice!

 

Cats spent the day huddled in the bathroom, the barricade buttressed additionally by our mattress and a chair or two. One and done – the windows were done in a day (a few terrible tense hours really) and the army of men moved onto the next apartment. We were number one – the very first in the building – and we are relieved as we watch their march continue through the building – progress pausing for the occasional very rainy or windy day. (If you missed it I posted about the pre-game packing of the apartment in a posts that you can read here and here.)

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Cookie the morning of window removal – deeply uneasy and unsure why.

 

For one thing, I swear I had no idea how much stuff I had managed to cram into our tiny kitchen over the years. I honestly (utterly naively) thought it could be packed in two hours. Man, was I ever wrong! Boxes and boxes (and hours) later I realized that I had held onto dishes that had been given to me decades ago I had utterly forgotten about and that I had utensils (some obscure) that I last used in my professional cooking days – which are now a full two decades behind me.

Some of these (a particular crimper of pie crust comes to mind) were hard to source originally and much beloved in their day, but have remained unused for years now in response to my present pie-making-less life. (Sadly, to a large degree, calorie control means that I exist in a largely pie-free eating state as well.) I am reminded of a life I might have imagined for myself in my twenties – wine decanter and matching glasses anyone? Dessert plates? I will try to cull the herd on the unpacking side. Meanwhile, boxes filled with breakables teeter in piles on one side of our single room apartment.

Acknowledging how hurried the packing really was I now harbor a secret deep concern that I have destroyed our delicate eco-system and will never be able to return us to a normal life. I am reminded of why I waited so long to get this work done, the last real renovation having been done when I moved into this apartment more than twenty years ago now. (Kim and I are hovering on the brink of 25 years since we got together, about two weeks from today, and I moved into this apartment about six months after that.)

While I am not especially picky, peeling linoleum, aging counters, cabinet, and a chronic broken overhead light were demanding attention which seemed impractical to tackle one project at a time. In addition, despite my lack of pastry producing these days, we really do cook in our kitchen pretty much daily. (Unlike some of our fellow storied Manhattan denizens, we do not keep cashmere cardigans in our oven as storage.) Ovens and refrigerators have come and gone over time. However, job changing, helping my parents move followed by Dad’s illness and ultimate decline, have all meant that I have invested no time or energy in the apartment. It has come back to haunt me and I am paying the proverbial piper now.

We are approximately in the middle of the kitchen process – or at least I would like to think so. The stove disappears on Tuesday, as does the water. The fridge will (somehow) find its way into the living room for the duration. (That will be interesting.) I will batten down the remaining hatches and figure out a way to heat coffee and heat the occasional item over the coming week or so. Our devotion to smoothies like to take a hit in the near future as well. (I wrote about smoothies recently, opining on the absence of them when I travel. The post can be found here.) Like our cats, we get disoriented quickly without our routines and our nerves fray rapidly.

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Kitchen dismantled and in progress. The floor is sporting its originally incarnation of linoleum here, recently uncovered.

 

In terms of our cats, Cookie has taken the process especially hard. She is a precise little creature and the ongoing disturbance is really taking a toll. Each night when I come home she and I sit on the couch and she meows the entire story out to me, insisting that I pet her and scratch her ears while she does. She meowed in outright alarm while I packed up the kitchen. I would say she is in a state of high nervousness that only a female house cat can achieve. Meanwhile, her brother Blackie, continues to nap on my spot on the bed, largely unconcerned. I won’t say he is entirely unaffected, but it is remarkable the difference in temperament.

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Blackie curled up in bed, as usual.

 

And yes, for those of you who are Pictorama readers ongoing – all this with Kim’s new book Reincarnation Stories hitting the stands last week! (My two-part review of the new book can be found here and here.) A very nice review came in from NPR (with a shout out to Pam of Pictorama – in addition to the excerpt from the New Yorker online and some other previews. (Always promoting the family business here at Deitch Studio, those links are below.)

Next weekend, despite apartment woes, we will be in Brooklyn where Kim will sign books and have a public conversation with fellow cartoonist Nina Bunjevac. (Comice Arts Brooklyn at Pratt Institute – I think they go on at 5:00. Kim will be signing books and I will set up with some t-shirts and original art work for sale.) Things are hopping here at Deitch Studio all around. Stay tuned for the next installment and wish us luck!

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Cookie this AM on her new favorite perch, two boxes of Reincarnation Stories.

 

Links to some early reviews for Reincarnation Stories:
NPR – Kim Deitch Spins His Yarns

Kitten on the Keys via the New Yorker

The Many Reincarnations of Kim Deitch

Info on the Comic Arts Brooklyn gig

 

 

Reincarnation Stories: A Very Biased Review

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday I kicked off my thoughts about Reincarnation Stories by taking my readers down the road of my bird’s eye view of how Kim makes his comics. Today I get onto the all important discussion of the new book at hand tackling it both as an uber Deitch fan and, well, a wife.

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Kim did a preview gig for Reincarnation Stories with Bob Sikoryak’s Comics Carousel a few weeks ago and I was surprised to have a good look at some of those pages again and on a screen for the first time. I was also surprised at how visceral my reaction was to remembering the opening scenes where Kim is recovering from his eye surgery. I literally could smell the dreadful hospital smell again and how afraid I was that the surgery wouldn’t work – and how awful it was to watch Kim in the chair, head down for more than a week.

I knew he wasn’t sleeping which also seemed like torture and I felt bad that there were few if any ways I could make him more comfortable. Having said that I pretty much had to help him with everything (a service he repaid more than in full when I had foot surgery a year or so later and was confined to bed for weeks) and our best discovery was that he could watch movies on tv if he was in a certain position and used a small mirror. Reading, surprisingly, was somewhat possible for him but in general it was hard to concentrate. Frankly, it was a miserable time – so odd to have it all rush back. However, as always, it seems he used the time wisely and it was the genesis for this book.

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The chair, which you rent after this eye surgery which, of course, requires assembly upon delivery, is sort of an instrument of torture although a definite necessity. It stank of disinfectant and hospital plastic.

 

Having said that, the glory of the pages was totally fresh to me seeing them on the screen. So many eyeball kicks! So much to look at! The introduction seemed new to me again (despite having lived some of it) and my fan self was immediately sucked in. When I then sat down and opened the book to start reading it again and I am struck by the density. It is satisfyingly thick – a really big dollop of Kim Deitch, unlike any serving of his work I remember receiving in one sitting before. Although I was there for every step of its creation I am struck by this and the fan side of my brain whirs with excitement. The drawings are reproduced at pretty much an ideal scale and this is delightful as well.

I am realizing now that sitting down to write this is in its own way a pretty Herculean task, there is so much and the themes (mortality, the meaning of life and creativity for starters) are so huge. How not to stroll endlessly through – the color section of my toy museum alone could be the subject of a blog post and perhaps will be in the future. (The Felix the Cat potty chair is real folks although I do not own it – and for that a shout out to our friend Mel!) It is the strange actualization of Kim mining my obsessions and personal mythology which is of course pretty amazing for me to see.

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Photo of Felix potty chair as supplied by Mel Birnkrant

 

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This is a delightfully Deitchian color page!

 

The beginning of the book spends a lot of time with a young Kim and while it is obviously a somewhat faux Kim it is sort of wonderful for me to contemplate a kid Kim visiting the monkey diorama (The Shrine of the Monkey Gods being one of my favorite Kim Deitch story titles of all time), discovering the Plot Robot, meeting Jack Hoxie on a family vacation with younger brother Simon and baby Seth. Family lore, real memories (for we all know the general litany of our spouse’s stories and I know where Kim’s fit) and Kim’s persistent personal mythology and vocabulary (silent and early sound cowboy films, traveling carnival shows, biblical apocrypha) mix and meld in these stories.

Meanwhile, almost unconsciously, the book has an undercurrent that persistently carries us gently, but decidedly, along on a tide of certain themes and to an ultimate conclusion. The most prevalent theme is about the place of art and creativity in the universe and the value of putting something good out in the world. The other is about somehow relating to and considering a universe that cares (at least a little) and what our place in that universe is. The Hidden Range story, Jack Hoxie’s own biography and what he took from his somewhat tragic childhood, Young Avatar (Kim striking it rich by putting Jesus his own comic as a super hero in an alternate universe), a young Kim and Spain taking a creative page or two from the Plot Robot in a pinch – these all boil down to a lesson about making a positive contribution in the world. Live right, entertain, contribute – simple but all important goals.

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Detail of a still from The Back Trail which Kim uses in the Appendix. (He adds that this film is available on DVD – in case you are wondering!)

 

Even I was fascinated by the extravagant Appendix as it grew like topsy. That there would be an Appendix was clear early on – that there needed to be an opportunity to provide some real life background on Jack Hoxie and Buck Jones. Their personal histories and mythologies are now faded over time and Kim knew he wanted a place to bring them back to life. However, that it would burgeon into more than forty pages was not immediately evident. (It was even a bit alarming – how long would it stretch on? Um, honey, is this maybe another whole book?) In retrospect, it is not only some of the most entertaining stories in the book (Kitten on the Keys, Who Was Spain?), but it serves to tie it all together.

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Buck Jones and his horse, Silver

 

In looking it over I am undeniably pleased to find my own small contribution at the back – longer than I remember it being, illustrated at the start by Kim. It is my personal reincarnation story – one that has taken frequent turns at dinner parties and other occasions when I am called on randomly to sing for my supper – or when the subject of past lives comes up for some reason. I published that story in this blog while the book was being prepared for publication. You can find that post here if you missed it.

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I will say that I have a somewhat complicated relationship with Waldo which in some ways resolves to a degree in this book, with his granting that my toy museum has its points – perhaps I am not all just a piece of cheese! While I started life as a Waldo fan, I will say living with him is a bit different than just seeing him on the page and as with all having to do with him, perhaps the less said the better. But Kim’s relationship to his maniacal muse balances out the end of the book and in a sense, Waldo’s cynical world view almost gets the last word – without being a spoiler, I will just say Kim snatches it back at the very end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reincarnation Stories Revealed – Making the Comics

Pam’s Pictorama Post: It is a very exciting week here at Deitch Studio! As I write today (they are yanking our windows out of the wall as I start this) the big news here is that Reincarnation Stories is hitting the stands at last! Yay! Today I am putting on my dyed in the wool Deitch fan hat and telling all about how the books get made, followed by my honestly biased review of Reincarnation Stories tomorrow. While I have written about Kim’s work in the past (see my recent post about his book Beyond the Pale which was my introduction to him here) this launches with a bit of a diatribe on the subject of the books he has done during the time we have been together.

I realize I cannot help but start with Kim’s process of making comics because when I open a book that I have watched him make for me, the process of getting there, and the lingering memories of what we were doing during each stage telescopes before me. These are microcosms of our daily life and certain drawings take me back to utterly unrelated events. (We were watching the election back when that was drawn; I was traveling in Shanghai when he came up with that…) However, mostly I remember watching it all come to life on blank sheets of paper – or even before when the story was just a kernel that Kim told me or that grew from a nascent conversation, or with him waiting for me to wake up on a Saturday morning, sitting on the edge of the bed and anxiously saying he has a story idea he wants to try on me.

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Kim may be surprised to know that this cover takes me right back to when we first started dating! I was beyond delighted to watch it come to life.

 

The first story I remember watching Kim work on was Molly O’Dare from what would become the Shadowland book. (Molly comes back for a rip roarin’ turn in Katherine Whaley.) We had started seeing each other and, Kim being Kim, he had his work along with him so that he could fit a few hours in here and there. It was my first chance to see how the sausage is made in a Kim Deitch comic book (they still were published as comic books, pamphlet length, then) and I was fascinated. The process from the simplest un-readable lay-outs to proper roughs and then fully realized lay-outs – which would then be traced and inked. (I had missed the character development sketch pages for that story. In some ways this has since become my favorite part of the process.)

As someone who draws (and actively was at the time) I was fascinated by Kim’s process. After writing the story in outline form, he more or less draws the entire book about four times. There are the roughest of roughs where the script sort of gets put down, and at that point Kim has to walk me through it because it isn’t legible. Then come the readable roughs. It was more layers than I would have dreamed possible.

About this time, if not earlier, those character drawings start fleshing out not just characters, but locations too, teasing out situations. Sometimes there is some back and forth – Kim using writing to push drawing forward and the other way around. If you’ve suspected that there is a Deitch universe behind every book, that somehow you never quite get to see – that’s it! The El Dorado – there actually is one! These are glorious pencil drawings on 11″x14″ copy paper. He makes piles of them.

Some have notes he’s written to himself with an arrow or box – sometimes it is a tidbit about the character Pam in her new size body or Transferring the souls of dead human beings into new miniaturized living bodies as from a new sheet hot off the press, shown below. Yes, I am here to tell you, everything does have a history and background. Some of the folks who follow Kim on Facebook see these as they develop. You too are getting a great backseat view of the process, albeit in pieces. And yep, we have ’em all and someday I want to see the best of them published.

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Snapshot of a design page, snatched from the pile, for Kim’s next book, How I Make Comics.

 

Meanwhile, the process marches on and readable roughs get turned into layouts which are amazingly finished looking, yet further changes are made before – voilà – they are finally traced onto Bristol board before being inked. The lightbox Kim uses to trace his drawings was a novelty to me. (A small Butler-Deitch fact is that a lightbox of my own was the first gift he gave me – one that eventually went on to be a shared one when his died. I believed we are now ironically using one that I in turn bought him when that one died. Something about lightboxes.) I had, before meeting Kim, been holding things up to the window to trace them, usually in order to flip them. (Welcome to the 20th century Pam.)

Anyway, the sheets of drawings quickly pile up – first the Xerox paper pages, followed by piles of inked finished pages, until (awash in paper) the story sits finished in a grand pile next to Kim on his desk. (I believe I have mentioned that we live in a single room where Kim also works? Yes, storage is an issue.) These days things then get scanned – there was a time within memory when they were carefully wrapped, packed up and Fed Ex’ed to Fantagraphics. We would be on pins and needles until we were assured they had arrived safely – and again when they were to be sent back. Scanning has its own issues – faithful Pictorama readers know that our scanner died on the very last page of Reincarnation Stories. We are hard on scanners. (There is great grousing during the scanning phase which is persnickety with making sure all pages are scanned, kept in order and all the scans are good.)

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The pile today. To my knowledge this is all of Reincarnation Stories and some of the new book, How I Make Comics. Kim notes that the other half of the book pile lurks, barely visible behind the lamp.

 

Kim and I met after Boulevard of Broken Dreams was published as comic books, although I had the pleasure of revisiting it all when it was published in hardcover as a single book by Pantheon (’02). So now I am going to start to wear my fan hat a bit more and say that as much as I loved seeing Boulevard published as a book, the size disappointed me and I felt the same about Alias the Cat (’07) – as beloved as it is for me. Both are better printed in comic book size – some of the detail isn’t sharp enough when you take Kim’s drawings and scale them down. Shadowland, a book of ribald carnival related stories displaying Kim at his best with this genre, collected and published by Fantagraphics at the about the same time (2006) was printed in a glorious size which further highlighted the difference. (It is in a trade paperback format of roughly 9″x12″.) I would love to see all his books re-issued in this or the same size as Reincarnation Stories. (Just sayin’ to you all at Fantagraphics.)

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Alias isn’t my first appearance in Kim’s comics (I have a cameo in Smilin’ Ed) but Alias is the first time my comic book character is in fully realized glory. I could and probably should devote considerable space to my love of Alias the Cat – I am quite sure few women can claim such a declaration from their spouse as this book is to Kim seeing me via my cat collecting mania. Now, looking back, the collection was in the somewhat early stages – readers here know that it has grown in leaps and bounds. Anyway, the thrill of opening that book never quite pales for me.

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Sporting a great coat designed by Kim, but a hat I really own – book held open by a rather sharp beaver paperweight I gave Kim during the beaver story in Katherine Whaley.

 

In passing I will say, as I am wont to do in person, that my comic book character is a tad more volatile than I think of myself. I don’t think I lose my cool as quickly as she does. (She’s a yeller and I am not.) Although some of her wardrobe reflects mine (a black beret-style hat I have worn for many seasons, handmade by a Japanese couple who used to have a store down the street – I have been recognized in it a comic book stores and cons when wearing it), but some is clothing designed by Kim I would love to own in real life. There is a certain winter coat that I would love to have – and the dress that I wear at the end of Reincarnation Stories is pretty spectacular too. I suppose my character being immortalized in them will have to be sufficient.

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Detail from the What It All Means section of Reincarnation Stories – the dress I wish I owned!

 

The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley (2013) breaks all the rules and the tosses much of the tradition of the making of a Kim Deitch comic book up in the air with an original more text (but not less drawing) format. While I do not appear in it (Kim barely does) I have a very strong sense that the design for Katherine Whaley is very much me, and Kim has said that the Eleanore Whaley character has much of me. Another shout out to Fantagraphics and especially the late Kim Thompson who edited that book – he took a chance and allow Kim to design it as a horizontal which the early art just screamed out for and it looks wonderful. Kim T. did a lovely job on that book and it is dedicated to him.

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Uncredited Pam drawing making an appearance here in the epilogue of Katherine Whaley

 

Meanwhile, the fact for the day for you Deitch Studio aficionados is on page 164, in the epilogue, is a small drawing of some beavers and the main character drawn by me. While the making of Katherine Whaley was in some ways stressful, it was a somewhat different process for Kim and the concern of whether or how it would be made to work remained a question during much of the conception and production, it really came out full blown from his mind in a very coherent way and he blasted through it. (It is my own opinion that this book will someday be considered a pivotal contribution that Kim made to the evolution of the graphic novel and perhaps suffered from being a bit before its time. I say that both as a biased wife and an uber Deitch fan.)

So, as I sit down now with this yummy amazing and satisfyingly fat copy of Reincarnation Stories I couldn’t be happier or more proud of Kim! Tomorrow I will get into what I will call a wife’s Very Biased Review of Reincarnation Stories. I hope your copy has arrived and that you will take the trip with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joyeux Anniversaire: an Anniversary Ode to Kim

Pam’s Pictorama Post: For those of you who are wondering where all the photos have gone I assure you that I am storing up a few that are slowing coming in by mail. Much like the Felix fiesta of a few weeks ago, a photo phase is in our near future. However, today following on yesterday’s whining about our apartment woes, I am scribbling an anniversary ode to Kim – tomorrow is the day. (Surprise Kim!)

While at the moment we find ourselves largely devoted to the more ho hum aspects of our lives – packing for the window replacement, doctor’s appointments, a loaf bread gone unexpectedly moldy, and Cookie stealing Blackie’s favorite sleeping spot (Blackie is pacing the apartment grumbling as a result), our 19 years rates some ballyhoo I think despite the fact that we rarely put much into celebration of the day. (Also of note, come November we will have met 25 years ago and have lived together for most of that time. Sometimes we seem to focus more on that anniversary than the day we actually got hitched.)

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Bronze cat based on Benin design and perched on local fabric, all brought back from South Africa

 

One’s 19th anniversary is evidently the bronze anniversary, symbolizing stability and health within the union, reflecting the way the couple have supported each other through challenges and obstacles, according to our friends at Google. (Kim, a heads up that your favorite metal, copper, doesn’t come up until our 21st.) Having just purchased a bronze cat (which is perhaps the only bit of bronze we own) we will attribute it to the anniversary granting me credit where it is perhaps not due as I only looked that up this morning. Meanwhile, I tend to agree with Google – the 19th seems like a moment to raise your head up and acknowledge that the corporation is running just fine and to take a moment to give a nod to the Board of Directors. Yay us!

I think the best tribute I can give to our union is that when I congratulate people on getting engaged I tell them all that I wish that they will be as happy with the decision as I am and I mean it very literally. Quite simply, it is the best decision I have ever made and it was not one I arrived at easily either. I still marvel at the workings of the machine that is marriage, and I am the first to say it seems to be tricky business – to the extent one can claim to get it right.

Putting romance aside for the moment, I think of it more like a corporation. Your spouse is your teammate on all the things to come every single day, as long as you are together. (Not to mention that your lives will be one long continuous conversation – people should consider that when picking out a spouse. I beg people to consider this and make sure they are really interesting.) That covers a heck of a lot – everything from career decisions, to leaky faucets, to which side to support in the coup d’etat of the co-op board. It is damn hard to find the right person to partner with in all of what life throws at us so I don’t blame my younger self for questioning if I was up to the task of finding one.

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However, in Mr. Deitch I am pleased to report that I find the best yang to my yin. Where he is fuzzy I am on point, where I have moments of panic he remains calm. He is dreamier and I am more concrete. This puts us in charge of different segments of the corporation, Deitch Studio if you will, but doesn’t mean that one doesn’t inform the other. Kim’s right there when I make career decisions and I make my nascent contributions to Kim’s comics world.

Meanwhile, the world of Deitch comics is pretty much one you enter into when you walk through the door of Apartment 16D here on 86th and York Avenue. As a mega-Deitch fan I enthusiastically embraced being a card carrying member of that world immediately when Kim and I first started living together and my appreciation has only grown. It is an interesting and delightful (if occasionally dark) place – and there is nowhere I would rather reside. Somehow we still manage the day-to-day of bill paying, grocery shopping, long work days, and periodic separations such as my recent trip to South Africa for work, while keeping one foot happily in the realm of Deitchiana.

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Reincarnation Stories hits the stands the day after our anniversary! Lucky me, my comic book avatar makes numerous appearances.

 

We rarely actually fight, but do disagree and snipe as people will – especially perhaps people who live together in a very small space. And only being human we nurse our gripes and allow them to fester until they take on velocity and grow to unwarranted proportions upon which a periodic reckoning takes place. This is always very painful as ultimately we are each other’s best friend and to be on the outs with each other is really being out of sorts with yourself.

So today I raise my metaphorical glass to my mate and wish us many more decades ahead. One cannot know where time and life will take us and how we will respond, but it is my fervent wish that I am penning much the same sentiments for years to come. For now a tip of the hat to the first nineteen years.

Overwhelmed

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Recently I started our tale of renovation woe and adventure and now we stand on the threshold of it. If all goes with plan, our windows will be replaced on Tuesday and work will begin on our kitchen shortly after. (That original post can be found here.) Today I sit, surrounded by boxes that need to be filled, wondering how exactly we will do it.

Generally speaking I am very good at managing things. A friend at work once compared me and my then colleagues to border collies. Efficient, sometimes nipping, exacting little canines, herding and organizing otherwise errant sheep. (Fundraising at the Metropolitan Museum often seemed that way. It was about steering things along and executing them. At Jazz at Lincoln Center a bigger and toothier animal is needed – another colleague used to refer to something called shark-itude, and for now suffice it to say more of that type of animal is required in this job.) Fundraising breaks down into many exacting tasks to be executed ongoing and your success is largely your ability to continually hit those marks, or as many as possible.

Therefore, the fact that I sit in our 600 square foot apartment (at least they told me that was how many feet it was when I purchased it – I have neither tested nor challenged that fact, but I have wonder occasionally) worrying exactly how to do what needs doing is a bit unlike me. I have been examining the challenge for days, weeks in fact pausing (only when in South Africa and other things overtook my daily consciousness) and frankly it seems mathematically beyond reason to arrange our furniture in a fashion which allows the window folks to do what they claim to need. That is without actually removing any of the furniture to another location.

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Cookie is ready to help

 

A friend was over last night and suggested turning the couch on its end and propping it up against one of the bookcases for the duration – the best suggestion I have heard to date for increasing access although the execution of it concerns me a tad despite the fact that I consider Kim and I reasonably fit. (Thank you Bill!) Boxes of our beloved (and admittedly a few still unread) books are being packed today in a wild variety of liquor store boxes – Bailey’s anyone? Kim’s to be maintained in his own mystical reading order requiring his own packing. (I just piled mine in by size.) A couple of real dogs are heading to the thrift store where perhaps they will find a new readership. These boxes will theoretically, in turn and when we are in a post-window replacement world, hold dishes and pots and pans from our kitchen. They seem inadequate for that and there will need to be more I suspect. Hopalong Cassidy is playing on the tv although we are not watching, somehow his voice has a soothing Saturday morning aspect to it.

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My pj’s are still available online from a company with the great moniker, The Cat’s Pajamas.

 

I prefer to do rather than to fret, but as I sit in my elephant pj’s this morning, cup of cold coffee at my side (night attire and coffee drinking habits have indeed been examined here and here for new readers) I am somewhat unsure how to proceed. I apologize that you, Pictorama reader, have to be along for the ride, but truly it is the only thing on my mind today. I wonder if the great generals and other masterminds have had these moments – sort of knowing somehow you will have to drag a camel throw the eye of a needle and wondering if you are up to the challenge.

I guess I figure come what may, somehow furniture will find a temporary perch, room will be made and windows replaced. Hopefully no furniture, toys, cats or people will be injured in the process. I will then find the stamina to empty our tiny but packed kitchen for phase two. (I’m sure you will hear more from three weeks of kitchen work and at least a week of take-out eating as a result.) As you see above, Cookie is at the ready to help. As I write she is supervising Kim packing Frank Merriwell paperbacks. (Blackie is snoring on the bed having assumed the warm spot I left upon rising earlier, as is his habit. For now he is unconcerned with this adventure. I am cat-like in my own craving for home quiet and routine. My own fur is therefore ruffled greatly.)

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Blackie slips into my spot in bed for a nap when I get up each morning.

 

After all is done I will see if I can muster the energy for a last maneuver for me and my troops – erecting a wall of bookcases which would enable us to see portions of the floor we haven’t in years. Wish us luck!

Johannesburg

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Yesterday’s post poked around a bit at some of my underlying thoughts about heading off to South Africa for a week of work around the Joy of Jazz festival. My internal resistance to the trip pointed to something more than the inconvenient travel. Nonetheless, I hopped on a plane for upwards of 15 hours, and only after only a bit of intermittent sleep I found myself on the other side of the planet where I stumbled off the plane and began my adventure. While I usually write more about myself when traveling Johannesburg was surprising enough as place that I am taking a departure to do a bit of an overview in this post today.

Those of you who are Pictorama readers already know I have traveled a fair amount with two trips to Tibet under my belt, Bhutan and a bit of Nepal along the way. (I had reason to examine those trips in a recent post about a trip to California which was somewhat disastrous in August. That post can be found here.) I did a brief turn in South America (Peru, Buenos Aires, Santiago) many years ago on my first trip representing the Metropolitan Museum. Shortly after taking the job with Jazz at Lincoln Center I had traveled to Shanghai. (That adventure was memorialized in my post which can be found here.) Mostly I note this because I have traveled a fair amount for comparison. To my surprise, Johannesburg is not the Third World, but neither is it the First and I will write more about that below.

I had not really considered what I would find when I got to Johannesburg and frankly there were things that surprised me. On a very basic level, I had not realized that Johannesburg is at an altitude of almost 6000 feet. While that wasn’t really high enough for altitude sickness (Lhasa for example is almost 12,000) the first time I went to run up a flight of stairs I couldn’t catch my breath. It is indeed high enough to get winded with exertion and perhaps to make me a bit dumber than usual – not good when you are trying to work in a foreign country!

It is extremely dry which I had considered (no umbrella in my suitcase, lots of moisturizer), but I was surprised that instead of desert vegetation there were deciduous trees (leafy) and even some evergreens, although also the occasional cactus. It was spring there (the seasons are opposite from ours) and we saw an abundance of beautiful flowering trees at the height of their bloom. It was one of the nicest aspects of the trip, the smells of these flowering trees (beautiful purple jacarandas) and other plants as well as seeing them in flower. At unexpected times I would wonder at what I was smelling and ask what it was. Generally people just looked at me like I was nuts – clearly enough of their day to day that they don’t think about it and no one could ever tell me what plant I was smelling. Giant aloe plants also seem to grow wild and at one point I am fairly sure I was enjoying wild jasmine when outside taking a break at the Apartheid Museum.

The food was simply amazing everywhere we went – much of it South African, but with an especially memorable Portuguese meal tucked in there. While, by nature of my business, many of my meals were in fine restaurants, even the more modest meals were notable. I was concerned that as a pescatarian my options would be limited, but there was a remarkable profundity of excellent fish and vegetables while meat of all kinds was indeed in abundance. The extreme spiciness which I experienced that time in London was evident – although the hot spices were full bodied and nuanced, not just a matter of blowing your head off. Many of the upscale restaurants based their menus on either traditional South African or pan African cuisine. Several meals will live in food memory.

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Lunch at a cafe in Soweto.

 

The extreme dryness however surprised me by making me cough and, perhaps along with the altitude, caused my nose to ooze bloody congestion endlessly throughout the trip – which I gather is not unusual for visitors and tormented me, waking me occasionally despite exhausted sleep. I battled these issues by drinking what must have been gallons of water. Although some of my colleagues drank the tap water I never do in foreign countries (it may be safe, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the time for my stomach to adjust to it) so I felt responsible for a vast number of plastic bottles which will need to be recycled. (I did spy a staff person at the hotel carrying out those bottles in a bag almost as large as himself.)

As I mentioned above Johannesburg defied category of First or Third World so I Googled it out of curiosity and discovered that it is indeed in a somewhat new category of Second World. We drove to Soweto for a Jazz for Young People concert and on that drive there was poverty not unlike what you see in Nepal or India – shanty towns, vast areas of trash. There are people begging, although my experience was that it was mostly at traffic intersections and of course you see that (to a lesser degree) when you enter Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. I was told that these were largely immigrants from the neighboring Zimbabwe who came to South Africa starving and looking for work. (Their immigration is controversial there.) Much of where we spent our time was like any cosmopolitan city however. We could have been any number of generic urban places. Joburg was a strange mix of things and in the end not quite like any place I have been.

 

It is no secret that parts of Johannesburg are dangerous and women in particular are told to be very careful. Night travel in particular seems to be considered carefully. As a result, and because I worked almost every waking hour I was there, I did not attempt to go anywhere alone which was unusual for me as well.  We saw some wealthy enclaves with walls around them which reminded me of Lima, although I didn’t see many individual homes this way – mostly sort of gated communities. When being driven to the north and the Apartheid Museum on the one morning we had to ourselves, our driver gave us a most interesting impromptu tour. He began by discussing the immigration issue – in his opinion the people from Zimbabwe had a right to come looking for a better life as had generations who had migrated to Johannesburg in prior decades. This is clearly a controversial issue there.

As we drove down a highway that could have been I-95 in Connecticut, I was fascinated when he pointed out a developed area of high rise buildings (could have been Stamford) and said that it had once been the heart of Johannesburg, but as the commerce moved to Sandton (the area we were staying in) this area had become desolate, deserted and ultimately unsafe. All the buildings we saw were now in disuse and inhabited by the aforementioned immigrant population. He pointed out a brick building that had been the stock exchange, a high rise hotel and said they were empty now and had been for years despite periodic attempts at urban renewal. (As Kim said, it begs to be the beginning to a story.) Further out he motioned to mountains covered in yellow sand that contained the famous (infamous) gold mines which were responsible for the creation of Johannesburg and said the mines of platinum and diamonds were further to the north.

Later that day we found ourselves at what was called a craft market which appeared to be the prescribed place to buy our tourist bits and pieces in a sort of one-stop shopping. Despite (or perhaps due to) my travels in Asia I have never been good at bartering. I might occasionally offer someone less for something, but that sort of expected to and fro has never been my strong suit. Therefore I was hesitant to even begin the game.

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Eventually I put my toe in the water with this cat figure which I gather is a leopard (their version of the king of the forest) and based on Benin bronzes. The seller had a few versions that were larger than my real life kits Cookie and Blackie and weighed five times what they do. He tried to tempt me with one of these, assuring me that he could ship it. (I didn’t think I could make him understand that I lived in one room in New York City with a husband, two cats and a heck of a lot of stuff already which made the size undesirable. I was the only person visiting the Mandela three room house in Soweto and thinking that the space was pretty good and about a third larger than our apartment.)

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Side entrance Mandela house museum in Soweto.

 

The seller then set his sights on selling me a pair of leopards – how lonely one cat would be without the other! I assured him that it was going to a destination with many, many more cat friends than he could imagine. We finally arrived at a price for the single cat and I dashed away while he shouted after me that the other cat would be waiting. I found a quiet corner where I purchased some fabrics made in traditional patterns and with vegetable dyes that would become gifts.

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Craft market from my bench perch, resting!

 

I chose one among a myriad of beaded elephants for Kim who spent several months drawing elephants earlier this year – trunk up for good luck. Lastly I added these few birds below and a couple of beaded bowls and then found a bench to rest on while my colleagues finished their shopping. Several members of the orchestra were also there and we compared acquisitions as we planned a route back to the hotel. Whew!

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We were to travel home on Sunday and the orchestra had been invited on a tour of a lion park early in the day so my colleagues and I joined the group. While it turned out to be a glorified zoo (which reminded me remarkably of my childhood trip to a then spanking new Great Adventure park in South Jersey which ran more to baboons than lions) it was interesting to finally get out of the city and see the non-urban landscape.

 

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Petting zoo where this cub uses a tree as a scratching post.

 

Working in another country (even out of state domestically) is always hard – event planning is most easily and successfully done when you can eliminate the unknowns and nothing is known to you in a foreign place. Therefore, this was a long and difficult trip (two seated dinners, welcome packages, a reception, a lunch, a lecture, four concerts – two which didn’t start until midnight – all tucked into five days) from a work perspective. Suffice it to say I had no trouble sleeping on the plane coming home.

However, when I consider what I actually thought of the country I am torn. South Africa, and perhaps especially Johannesburg, is earnest in its self-examination and forth coming about the issues and history they wrestle with which are real and difficult. The politics of their situation is well beyond my capacity to comment on in an intelligent way. However, I found the people of Johannesburg to generally be lovely and welcoming of us as visitors, but also well informed and involved in the continuing evolution of their city and their country.

Below is a few moments from our Jazz for Young People’s concert in Soweto which was so well received it ran over by more than half an hour as Wynton and the orchestra improvised for the appreciative audience of students. In the end I believe our music brought joy to all those who encountered it and in that way was indeed successful.

 

South Africa

Pam’s Pictorama Post: As I have occasionally done in the past, I write today from an airplane as I speed home (if a 15 and a half hour flight could be called speeding by the stretch of any imagination) from a far flung destination. I travel not infrequently for my job and this time it was to join the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa for the Joy of Jazz festival.

While I mostly groused about the very long flight and the difficulty of leaving Manhattan in the fall, a very busy time for fundraising, the truth was I was extremely ambivalent about going. The history of the country, within my living memory, tainted it and I tried to unwrap my hesitancy and it wasn’t easy. I reached back my mind to the time I spent living in London when I was in college. I had made friend with a man who went by the name of Don Bay (his given name is Azad Bayramian) and who owned an African music distribution business, Stern’s. It was through him that I first heard High Life music.

 

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While it never quite established itself the way jazz ultimately did in my sensibility, I enjoyed it immensely. Don brought me to concerts – often outdoors in summer, going for hours over steamy British summer afternoons into evening and then into night, lines of dancing women in colorful, brightly patterned cotton outfits, the audience drinking, smoking and of course dancing, dancing and dancing. I was twenty-one and living on my own in a city for the first time and exploring every new thing that came my way and this was certainly far different from anything life in New Jersey or Connecticut had to offer. The music was a big part of it.

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The shop, which I believe is no longer there, as it looked when I lived in London.

 

In this way I also seriously contemplated the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. While the lure of India and Central Asia had ignited via studying the art in high school, I had never deeply considered Africa. For the first time I became curious about it in a real way and because of my friend Don I was meeting a never-ending stream of African musicians as they passed through London, playing gigs and promoting their music. I remember being told that at home in Africa they might fill a stadium with fans while playing more modest festivals, theaters and even clubs in London.

Meanwhile many would stay at Don’s house in Putney which always seemed to have a room enough for a few more people. Don and I both enjoyed cooking and we would make wild lavish meals and invite all sorts of people over for massive dinners and the musicians were frequently in attendance. However, they could often be found just as often, making themselves dinner or a coffee on a quiet evening.

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King Sunny Ade – I did meet him and loved his music, although he was too famous to join our gatherings in Putney.

 

On one occasion in particular I remember coming in just as one fellow, I do not remember his name, was just putting the finishing touches on his meal and he asked if I would like to join him. In the pan was a very small fish in a red sauce and a large pot of rice. I felt dubious about depriving him of any. However, he explained that the fish was so spicy I would only need a small amount to a large amount of rice. I can still remember it – the spice just about blew the top of my head off and it was great!

To be very honest, this was the first time in my life I met a large number of black people. It feels odd to say that but it is the truth. I had grown up in a very white town in a wealthy enclave in New Jersey. Quite simply it was extremely white. Our minorities, as such, were Jews and Catholics. (I lay claim to a fair portion of both but have come out looking sheer WASP – more about that another time.) It was the sort of town which would turn on its ear when one of its own football types dated a fellow student who was Asian and brought her to the country club. Now here I was living in a foreign country and meeting people from Africa. Amazing!

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I lived in the basement of the building on the far right and on the right side of the entry. It was much more run down back then!

 

During this time I dated any number of people – a random cross section of mostly British young men. One I discovered to be a heroin addict (fascinating and another first for me), another a very short good lucking man who was trying to break into modeling, but whose height barred him from success in this area. (Oddly he got one gig in a party scene for a liquor ad and I saw him plastered all of the tube for weeks.) He was a bit mean and we only went out a few times.

I don’t remember how I met David, probably at the coffee house I used to frequent for the only decent cup of coffee in all of London (a sort of a cappuccino – this was long before the Starbucks-a-fication of the world) and it was also an inexpensive warm perch on cold evenings when my flat was largely without heat. He was a white South African and that alone oozed romantic unknowns. Older than me by a few years and clearly more worldly, he was living in London in a sort of self imposed exile, north of where I lived, in what was at the time a somewhat suburban enclave.

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The Troubadour Coffee House pretty much as I remember it from the endless hours spent drinking coffee there. It is still in business although the owner, Bruce Rogerson who I knew well, died a number of years ago.

 

Opposed to Apartheid David had left South Africa without fulfilling his mandatory military commitment. He did not wish to fight on behalf of a country with politics he did not agree with, however his exile stung him and he opined on missing his homeland frequently. I did some reading up on Apartheid and I guess I couldn’t figure out why he’d want to go back to a country which sounded horrid to me – nor did exile in London sound especially bad. Admittedly, while very enamored of his exoticness, I was perhaps in my naiveté unfairly unsympathetic.

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Enlargement of an early pass carried by all individuals in South Africa under Apartheid – this is from the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

 

However, where I encountered my real nexus of confusion was around David’s discomfort with interacting with actual black people. (We never discussed other races and I have no knowledge of his thoughts about let’s say Asians although they certainly suffered under the rules of Apartheid as well, and I now wonder if his unease extended to them.) In retrospect, all these years later I want to hope I can have more compassion for someone who was struggling to find his way out of the dubious lessons he was raised with, even if unable to fully transcend that formative training. Despite an inclination to support a view that was different from he how was raised, his discomfort with people of different races mingling was extremely uncomfortable for him and I was simply flummoxed by his inability to accept.

Needless to say, my interactions with the musicians and my new found fascination with High Life music was an insurmountable issue for him – he was horrified – and our relationship never really got out of the gate. It wouldn’t have anyway – we did not have much in common other than my romantic fascination with the exotic and whatever it was about me that had a passing fancy for him. I was just sizing the whole world up at that point.

We parted genially, but it stayed with me and to some degree I wrestled with it all through the subsequent latter part of the 1980’s and early 90’s as the fight against Apartheid received more international attention. Along with AIDs it became the a central political issue of my young adulthood, although to be frank I have never been politically active. Oddly, he wrote me a letter when I was back in the United States. It didn’t really say much as I remember and I can’t imagine why he did; perhaps the encounter with me continued to nag at him. He still was in the no man’s land between England and South Africa. I wrote back and never heard from him again. I remember wondering later if he was ever able to return home.

In some ways all this to say, while there is no excusing prejudice and everything about Apartheid was heinous, looking back I think my youth made me self-righteous in a way that I understand now was simplistic. We all want to believe we are free of the tribalism of whatever clan we claim, but the reality is more tangled than that. Even with the best intentions I think in reality we have to struggle to understand the other guy – whoever that is at the time. I know that better now that I am a few decades down the line. And that truth is far more uncomfortable to live with, but more real.

My friend Don’s business interacted largely with Nigeria and Ghana as I remember, and there had been an opportunity to travel to Nigeria with him but I could not come up with the money. I regretted the missed chance for years – it would have been fascinating to travel that way and a great introduction to that country. Although Don and I stayed in touch for a long time (he was at our wedding – our 19th anniversary is coming up in a week or so), he stopped traveling to this country post 9/11, when his Iranian place of birth on his passport (he was a naturalized Iranian of Armenian descent and faced painful prejudice his entire life which is its own story) became an entry issue each time he attempted to enter into the country.

Stern’s shut down the New York office of the company in the early 2000’s. They also had a location in San Paolo, Brazil which I believe may still be in existence as well as an online presence. I am unclear if they have a retail outlet in London although the location I knew on Warren Street was sold and redeveloped. Don removed himself from the daily operations of the business in the early 2000’s and was spending part of each year in Thailand in semi-retirement.

All came slowly back to me as I tried to unpack my resistance to this trip, confronting my discomfort, as well as some anticipation about finally setting foot on the continent of Africa for the first time. I have already gone on too long for today and I will attempt to tie up the story about my trip tomorrow.