We Wish You A Merry Christmas!

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When I was growing up, my parents would always start off Christmas morning the same way. Harry,  Fiona, and I would come into their room, jump on their bed at around seven am (we were expressly forbidden from waking them sooner), and insist we go downstairs and open presents. We would then wait at the top of the stairs while my Mom made coffee and Dad went into the living room and exclaimed in loud and enthusiastic tones at the presents that Santa had brought overnight. “Oh my God, LOOK!! This is INSANE. Rose, will you come in here?? LOOK AT THIS. We’re going to have to send some of this back. You guys don’t deserve this many presents,” and so on, taking what felt like a painfully long period to make the two cups of coffee, then, finally, take out the camera and allow us to proceed down the steps in age-order (meaning that I always went last), and photographed us as we entered the living room. When we were older and got our dog, Harry used to make plans to strap a video camera to Cocoa’s collar and let him go down and spy on the Christmas tree for us. This giddiness hardly wore off as we grew older, and my Dad continued to exclaim about Santa even after none of us believed him. But throughout the entire morning, we would listen to the soundtrack of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, whose songs are now imprinted in my head as I go about the holiday season. One in particular made its mark.

“It’s Christmas in New York,” the Rockettes would sing, as I opened presents and handed mine to my parents in exchange. “New York. New York.” I imagined the tree at Rockafeller Center, the store windows at Sacks, the cold city streets filled with lights. And finally, after twenty three years, I know what made that song worth singing, and know that the reality is even more magical.

photo (33)There is truly nothing quite like the Christmas season in this city. Even as a barely paid intern who can mostly marvel at the shop windows rather than entering, I find myself swept up in the festivity of the season, in a way I never felt in college or even beforehand. I spent last weekend making gluten-free Christmas cookies with Nick and Sam, going to the Nutcracker (tickets to which the boys gave me as a birthday present, and which was stunning), hopping from one Christmas market to the next, and decorating my and Ross’s tree, which is tiny and stout and wonderful, and sits beside our IKEA couches in the living room. I have been to several holiday parties, marveled at the lit trees up and down Park ave, and made yet another batch of boeuf bourgignon for a last-minute pre-holiday gathering of friends tonight. It is, suffice to say, in many ways the most wonderful time of the year.

In other ways, however, we have all found ourselves going through the last week with heavy hearts, as news from the school shootings pervades every news source, and the financial and familial stress the holidays can bring weighs down on us even as we celebrate them. One of the realizations of growing up, I have found, is that there is never a time which does not have some tinge of bittersweet emotion.  I listen to Christmas carols and smile as I wrap presents on my bedroom floor, and then turn on my computer, read the Times homepage, and am in tears. I decorate our beautiful little tree, and pass people on Houston street who do not have beds to sleep in.  In times when we are encouraged to feel the most joy, there is a heightened sense that this is the only emotion we are allowed to feel. And Christmas carries with it this pressure almost more than any other time.photo (36)

So here is my advice to my fellow Prousters, family, and friends: let the holidays be whatever they are for you. Tell the people you love that you love them, as often and as eloquently as you can. Do not feel the need to buy too many presents, or feel like everyting has to be perfect, or exactly the way it was when you were a child. Proust has taught me, along with time itself, that nothing ever remains the same, and that our ability to grow and adapt to this change is what makes us stronger. I am having two Christmases this year, the way I see it. One will be with my best friends, before I go home, and the other with my family in Baltimore. On Saturday I will go home to my family for a week, and will come back to a different routine than the one I am leaving, will have to find a new job, or else piece a few together. I will have to say goodbye to my desk adn office kitties, and leap out into a future which is, at this point, largly unknown. But this is not as frightening as it once was, because I know that no matter what happens, we will carry on. I will keep writing, carols will keep playing, the most wonderful friends on earth will still be there for me. Christmas still has its magic, even if I now find it under a very different tree.

So Nora and I would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas, or Hanukkah (though I know that has now passed), or Kwanzaa, or Winter Solstice, or whatever you celebrate. You, our friends, family, and readers, are the best gifts we could ever ask for. So light your candles, gather together, drink mulled wine and eat cookies. And have the happiest of New Years.

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Hello Photography

A week has gone by since I last recounted an anecdote from my life, and what a week it has been! I turned twenty-three, on an unseasonably warm day in which I met Cathy, my mother’s friend and one of my adopted second-mothers, for lunch in Bryant Park, talked to Emily, who called me from Germany, received wonderful gifts from Sam, Liz, and Nick, and had the most marvelous of birthday dinners cooked for me by the incomparable Nick, who remains a culinary wonder, and the best friend I could ever ask for. Nora and Marcel wished me a Happy Birthday here, which, naturally, made my life, and I returned to life as usual, attending several Christmas parties over the weekend, helping the boys trim their gorgeous tree, and listening to Liza and Julia perform the best wassail iteration of a Ukrainian Christmas carol the world has ever seen. I am, as always and ever, in awe of my friends.Boeuf Bourgignon

Today, however, has been a bit less festive. Stressed and behind on work and life, I am spending the day at home (no one was in my office today and my editor told me I may as well take today off), applying for jobs and making Boeuf Bourguignon, a dish inspired (once again) by my secret quest to become Julie Powell, and a manifestation of my current state of mind. Whenever I am under a lot of pressure, stressed, or otherwise need some sort of escape from my thoughts, I endeavor to recreate out of one of my favorite cookbooks a series of complex and time-consuming dishes. In the past, these have ranged from lamb chops and greek salad, Thanksgiving of Junior year, to potato-leek soup at the beginning of this fall, to a ten-layer Hungarian chocolate cream cake during a particularly stressful finals week Sophomore year (this one got fed to my Literary Theory class, so it’s stress-relieving properties were passed on!). Today it is French Beef Stew, a dish that has filled my apartment with an almost painfully delicious aroma for the past three hours, and which, in the rhythm of its careful construction, gave me a brief pause from the following thought:

Next Friday, December twenty-first, the day of the supposed Mayan Apocalypse, is my last day at the photography magazine I have worked at since arriving in New York nearly six months ago. Though I am applying to every job in editorial which I can find, the outlook is, for the moment, rather disheartening, and the prospect of returning from Christmas at home to a state of unemployment here is nothing short of terrifying. Though there have been times in the past few months when I have become frustrated with my job, tired of doing editorial scut-work, or else bored by the current task with which I was assigned, as a whole, I have loved my time there, loved walking down the High Line on my way to work, loved the banter of the design team in the kitchen at lunch, loved the cats that perch on my desk before I pester them and am scratched into submission. I look forward to a future that involves writing for which I can be paid, and editorial tasks which I can direct rather than simply complete. But I have been very lucky to get to do this right out of college, and have learned many skills which I will not soon forget.

naude2009When I first arrived in July, I felt rather like a fraud, an intern at a photography foundation who neither studied photography formally in school, nor owned a camera! The first day of work, when we were being shown around the office, someone introduced Weegee, one of the two cats who have become my best friends and worst enemies at work. “Oh Weegee, like a Weegie board!” I declared. And another intern turned to me and corrected, “no, Weegee, like the famous photographer.” I was clueless, new to this world, and, though my uncle is a professional photographer and I have always admired his work, had little emotional or educational connection to the medium at hand.

Now, I can proudly say, that is no longer the case. I have catalogued magazine issues devoted to Minor White, have worked at a silent auction in which I had to carry a Manuel Álvarez Bravo from the hall walls, through a crowd of black-tie-clad patrons, and into a room to be packaged, shaking all the time with the thought of dropping the five-thousand-dollar work. I have become utterly obsessed by Robert Mapplethorpe, haunted by Donna Ferrato’s portraits of abused women, and would give a lot to be able to see Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency played in slides on a dusty barroom wall, as they were in the East Village of the seventies. I now recognize names, can appreciate certain artistic nuances, and have learned, for whatever it is worth, to love a captured image nearly as much as swaths of paint on a canvas.

And once again, Marcel had something to say on this subject just as I was reaching a conclusion myself. The young man goes to visit Elstir, the famed painter of the text, whom I have been eagerly waiting for 1100 pages to meet, in his Balbec studio and, marveling at the prowess of the great artist, ruminates on the art of the photograph,

Although it is rightly said that there can be no progress, no discovery in art, but only in the sciences, and that each artist starting afresh on an individual effort cannot be either helped or hindered therein by the efforts of any other, it must none the less be acknowledged that, in so far as art brings to light certain laws, once an industry as popularized them, the art that was first in the field loses retrospectively a little of its originality  Since Elstir began to paint, we have grown familiar with what are called “wonderful” photographs of scenery and towns. If we press for a definition of what their admirers mean by that epithet, we shall find that it is generally applied to some unusual image of a familiar object, an image different from those that we are accustomed to see, unusual and yet true to nature, and for that reason doubly striking because it surprises us, takes us out of our cocoon of habit, and at the same time brings us back to ourselves by recalling to us an earlier impression.  (Within a Budding Grove 570)

Marcel goes on to reflect that, while they are now a medium outdated by the photograph, Elstir’s paintings still manage to illustrate perspective, conjure a specific vista or shade of light, just as powerfully as a shutter and lens. It is interesting that he should bring up this idea of one media eclipsing another, however, as I am working for a magazine, a print periodical seen as a dying vehicle, showcasing photographs, which many see as passé since the arrival of the digital camera and the mass proliferation of lesser images. Photography, some say, as Art Historians said about fine art after post-modernism, is dead. We are merely the observers of this decline and, in the age of Instagram and iPhone images, helping to accelerate it.

Well, I would like to say that, after working for an institution that devotes itself to the wholehearted pursuit of this “dying” art, after seeing images of abused women that raised awareness of domestic violence, images of polluted swamplands in Louisiana that drew attention to the oil hazards in the Gulf, after standing in front of an image of the Brooklyn Bridge at the time of its construction, workers suspended on the steel cables over the East River, I would like to say that photography is very much alive. Just as the paintings Marcel sought to preserve still line the walls of our museums and the interiors of our books, so do photographs lace the corners of our vision, transmit the images of loved ones or orange cats or elephants in Africa across timezones and linguistic barriers. Photography, that art I have grown to love, is not going anywhere. And I wish I could make Marcel see how very marvelous the things that came out of that art would be. He was, for once, trapped in time.

But for me, it is time, for now to move on to bigger, better, mostly just different things. Where will I be this time next month? Waiting tables while I try to freelance on the side? Working for a magazine or book publisher? Cooking my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while temping for the Lower Manhattan Development Coorporation? Only time will tell. And time, as Marcel so often reminds me, makes fools of us all. So rather than guess, rather than hitch my hopes to a passing star, I will braise tender chunks of beef in red wine, sit back, and write while the broth begins to simmer, awaiting that moment, that thing that will surprise me, take me out of my cocoon of habit,  and ultimately bring me back to myself.

To Love Without An Ample Income: Christmas for Broke Girls

Christmas gifts

Buy! Buy! Buy!

The holiday season is upon us and, as someone who moonlights in retail, I’m overwhelmed daily by the sense of coerced “gift giving” that permeates New York. For every commercial that promises a “December to remember” or assures us that “every kiss begins with Kay,” I tend to miss the attempted sentimentalism and just see companies demanding the hard cold cash I don’t have.

At college for the past four years I think we were immune to some of this guilt and social pressure. Holidays at Hamilton meant fasting through finals and Christmas themed parties (which were the same as other parties, only we had red and green solo cups). When our exams were over we came home, collapsed on our couches and ate and slept like the hungry, happy children we were.

While I’m not claiming that to be more any more an adult today than I was a year ago, I am seeing much more of the adult world. Namely, those four weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year when all you hear is holiday music and everyone is collectively stressed about dealing with their families and end-of-the-year projects. And money. Dear God, the money. Was there ever a time when I thought about anything else? I can’t even make it through a chapter of Proust without checking my bank account and making a budget for the next day, which I proceed to break when I realize just how hopeless my financial situation is.

As a protagonist, Marcel is more anxious than stressed. His life, which consists mainly of vacations and dinners designed around his frail health, doesn’t exactly invite the kind of stress of, I don’t know, facing foreclosure or being fired. However, the novelist makes his reader privy to  Marcel’s perpetual anxiety about love, be it romantic or familial (or some Freudian combination of the two).

And Marcel’s anxieties are perhaps so readable because, as trivial as they may seem on a macroscopic level, at their most basic level they are applicable to our own:

“It is sad,” La Bruyere tells us, “to love without an ample fortune.” There is nothing for it but to try to eradicate little by little our desire for that pleasure.

If I may modernize: It is sad, everyone seems to tell us, to do anything without money in the bank. If you don’t have a disposable income, as in, a light-your-cigarette-with-a-$100-bill income, you’re screwed, give up now, you won’t be able to live like a person, go home. But instead of this novel behaving as an echo chamber for my own financial woes, it instead subverts the expectation of material pleasure. Proust writes:

In my case, however, the material means had been forthcoming, but at the same moment, if not by logical effect, at any rate as a fortuitous consequence of that initial success, my pleasure had been snatched from me. As, for that matter, it seems as thought it must always be… If we succeed in overcoming the force of circumstances, nature at once shifts the battle ground, placing it within ourselves, and effects a gradual change in our hearts until they desire something other than what they are about to possess.

And so on. As Proust explains, “the possession of our happiness is wrested from us, or rather it is that very possession which nature, with diabolical cunning, uses to destroy our happiness.” Again, to modernize, we simply can’t be satisfied with what we possess, and, as far as I’m concerned, this renders possessions ultimately worthless. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? So why should I be stressed about what I don’t have, because my desires right now will only be supplanted by desires for new things. So I’m finishing out 2012 trying to think about valuing the things that can’t be priced. And, as cheesy as all this is, it’s something I desperately need. I guess it means a lot more reading Proust and blogging, huh?

Image courtesy of Anthropologie, quotes from Within a Budding Grove (274)