Monday, October 19, 2009

1. Introduction: on New York and sublimation

It was a little over two years ago now that my family left New York City. My wife and I had been bouncing around Manhattan, from apartment to apartment, for a dozen or so years, and I've lived there on and off since I was born. New York is home to me in a way that no other place ever will be, so much so that the idea of explaining why – ascribing it to the seasons, the wheeze of the uptown bus, or the early morning groan and belch of the garbage truck - all strike me as a writerly affectation. These are not preferences to me, or pleasures. They are sewn into me. They are my comfort food, and the way I think life should sound and smell and irritate.

Even after two and a half years away, the feeling of loss and displacement is still remarkably raw. When I see New York on television, I ache. I can’t watch Sesame Street with my children; I have to leave the room. When I leaf through the photo album of our last two years there, I feel as if I’m looking at pictures of a deceased lover. Not that she is dead. I know she isn’t. Not that we won’t be back, I’m sure we will, barring injury, but I also know what they say about stepping in the same river twice.

What makes the pain especially acute is that the year or so right before we left was an extraordinarily happy time for us, owing mainly to the fact that the prior seven years had been so sad. My wife and I had desperately wanted to have children, but couldn’t seem to find a way. We traveled the long and lonely roads of Reproductive Technologies and then adoption. We felt all the desperation that comes, and the financial and emotional devastation, and for a while there it looked like nothing would come of our efforts and that our lives were slipping away.
But all that changed. Under circumstances I’ve written about elsewhere, we were visited in relatively quick succession by two moments of grace the nature and extent of which would likewise be vain to try to capture here in words. Suffice to say that for one couple, in the space of one lifetime, to have felt so cursed and then so blessed in one and the same regard is, from a pure storytelling perspective, a little de trop. And you will say, "Well that’s they way it works, isn’t it? Deprivation breeds gratitude. Love begets grief.” And I will say, ‘Yes, but no.” Trust me, no pat psycho-dialectic comes even close to explaining whatever the hell went on, and goes on, with us. Truly, Richard Dawkins can kiss my ass.

That last couple years we were all living on West 91st St, a half block from the park and all its playgrounds, the horse path, the reservoir, the Great Lawn, the Met, the Museum of Natural History. My wife was teaching two blocks away. Our son, at 3, was attending his first year of pre-school. Our daughter was newly arrived. Her crib was in our bedroom, and we were squeezed in there but happy. I was trying to finish a book, so for mental space, I joined a private library across the park, where for a nominal fee I was given access to a small complex of working spaces up on the top level of a very handsome, old world mansion made of white stone, polished marble, burnished wood and stacks and stacks and stacks of books.

So my days proceeded: dropping one child off at school, leaving the other with our sitter whom we loved almost as much as the kids, cutting across the park from 91st to 79th, putting in as honest a day’s work as a writer can, (which isn’t too, granted), grabbing a small lunch at Don Filippo, maybe sneaking an espresso back in among the stacks, then returning in the late afternoon to an apartment brimming with the brand of joy that only two toddlers – and these two in particular – plus seven prior years of agony and loneliness, spent variously in clinics, lawyers offices, and orphanages – can bring. That kind of joy. It was a very special time in our lives, and mine, where everywhere I turned, I felt that I was home and where I should be, doing what I should be doing. Finally.

The only real fly in the ointment, and it was a pretty big fly, was money. For the reasons already alluded to, as well as my refusal to do anything other than try to finish that novel (despite the fact that for the first time in my career I had no advance and no publisher), we were accruing some pretty serious debt. My wife and I had long discussed the possibility of trying California for a few years at some point. She had family there. I had family there. Fallow dwellings and related connections tendered the prospect of slightly cheaper living, so we decided maybe the time had come to head on out, just to get our financial house in order, and to enjoy our children’s pre-school years. We weren’t closing the door on New York, by any means. We sublet the apartment on 91st, but still deep down we knew, as our cab drove us and our carseats, our strollers and diapers and overstuffed luggage out to the airport, we were leaving behind a golden moment that we would probably never recapture.

We had no great cause to complain. The ensuing flight landed us in what is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth, tucked between the foothills of the Santa Ynez Range on one side and the calm Pacific on the other, further tempered by the Channel Islands that chisel the horizon whenever the morning fog lifts. It is the land of my wife’s youth, and my mother’s youth as well, and we are surrounded by a lot of extended family with whom we get along swimmingly. So there were a slew of ways to distract and console my sense of loss. Perhaps I’d finally discover my green thumb. Or try my hand at a “New York” novel. Did Rachmaninov not write his most ‘Russian’ music wile he was traveling abroad? Did Dvorak not compose his most ‘Bohemian’ music while living in the United States? Of course he did. He was living in Manhattan, for heaven’s sake.

So I tried and I try, but still one has to be honest with oneself and recognize: Given who I am, given what I do, given the sorts of things that make my juices flow, the northern tip of Southern California (or the southern tip of the Central Coast, I’ve never really been sure), for all its Edenic beauty, is probably not a place that I would ever have chosen to live on my own. And that’s not even to say I don’t think I should be here – there’s value in being taken out of your comfort zone – but as I said to a sister-in-law not long after moving, living out here would be my personal version of Black Like Me. Those who know me will attest, the mere fact that there is a lawnmower parked in my garage right now – that’s two punch-lines right there. So yes, I admit it has been a challenge figuring out how to continue to be creative and productive and dry and constructive – how to be me as I understood me to be – without the help and guidance of countless filthy pigeons.

If joining that private library on 79th Street was the smartest thing I did before leaving New York, the smartest thing I’ve done, by far, since coming to California was to accept my aunt’s invitation to join her at the lifedrawing class she attends every Thursday evening at the Adult Ed Center in Santa Barbara.

But wait, that’s not quite as pathetic as it sounds. I come from a family of artists, mostly of the paint and easel variety. My mother is one. Three of her sister are, or were. Two of my cousins are, and I myself drew a lot as a kid, enough at least that if you’d asked me back then what I was going to be when I grew up, I probably would have sighed and said “artist.” So it’s in the blood. When my aunt invited me to join her, I said absolutely. Lifedrawing would be my bowling night, a chance to get out of the house, see other humans, draped and un-draped, either way was fine.

When I first joined, the class was being taught by Jorgen Hansen (no relation). Jorgen had been running the workshop, or something like it, for some forty years, during which time he had gathered around him a devoted following, a kind of core unit of now middle-aged to twilit artists who could be counted on to drift in and out of the doors, pending weekly availability. Coming in the escort of my aunt, an esteemed member of that unit, I felt both very much like a newbie, but also an initiate. My parents knew Jorgen as well from way back when they were all drinking and driving much too fast, and from the moment he made the connection, I think he found my presence a little disarming. Whenever he looked at me, I had the distinct feeling his life was flashing before his eyes.

Aside from that, the space was a comfortable one for me, as was the task at hand. I’ve always preferred drawing to painting, and the subject matter happens to be the one that interests me the most: humans and their attitudes. So it didn’t take long for the class to assume a fairly important role in maintenance of my psychic well-being, fragile as it was in my new surroundings. Lifedrawing was, and still is, the one thing I’ve done since moving out here that I’m quite sure is correct, to the point that I find it kind of strange that I wasn’t doing the same thing back in the city. It’s as if those three hours a week I spend in room 23 are the missing puzzle-piece of my life in New York, magically turned up here, in the Schott Center in Santa Barbara.

But my purpose here is not to tell tales or violate the sanctity of that space with much in the way of anecdote or description. That could be fun, but I think it’s best to honor the tacit compact of all who enter, that what happens in room #23 should probably stay there, at least as far as the others are concerned. For myself, my hope is simply to provide a small window into the room, the one framing the models, framing the sketches, and (when properly lit) reflecting my own experience as I drew them, including the occasional rumination about the role that art, artists, and drawing has played in my life; how that process, for me, compares to writing; and how that rediscovery has helped me cope with the various frustrations that life has been meting out, including the lingering sense of disorientation I feel, separated from the place that bore me, suckled me, weaned me, taught me, deflowered me, and seems at the moment not to care for me all that much, but who knows, maybe I started it.

Let me begin , then, with this: It was the formidable tag-team of Nietzsche and then Freud who first identified the concept of sublimation. Others added their twist later on, but the basic idea is that in order to remain citizens in good standing, we all have to find ways of suppressing our most dangerous impulses – the violent, the perverse, the anti-social, and the sexual, needless to say. We do this by re-channeling them into some more creative and socially acceptable outlet; by substituting what we think we can get away with for what we really want. This process is called sublimation. All art is sublimation. Without it, we’d all just go ahead and murder our parents.

I don’t mean to predispose the viewer. The drawings here are many things. They are what they are. They’re a father’s chance to get out of the house one night a week; a writer’s opportunity to reacquaint himself with an old neglected friend. They are, in certain select cases, the live sublimation of the clear desire for that which they portray; but even more – and here my justification for the lengths of this preamble – they are also obviously an expression of longing. And maybe it all goes back to the fact that I really didn’t draw that much during the prior two or three decades, but I can’t help feeling there’s something in the various elements that the drawings posted here combine – the grubbiness, the soot and butcher-paper tone, the nakedness, to say nothing of the peace of mind that drawing them all has brought me – that leads me to think that they are, among other things, a cunning sublimation of the one most enduring desire I’ve felt since taking up the charcoal again – or since taking up residence in this beautiful garden by the sea - to still be fucking the streets of New York City.
Next Post: three drawings of Jorgen Hansen.


  1. Wow. Really great. Not sure how I missed this one when it was first posted.

    (For what it's worth, I'm sure the city wants to fuck you back.)

  2. wonderful exposition. thanks for your honest revelations on the twists and turns of LIFE.