Looking for Avonte

17 Oct

In the course of a week, people started looking.  And they started looking differently.  They looked for Avonte Oquendo, who is mute and can only look back, and we long for him to come back from wherever he is hiding, or lost, or wandering, or — we don’t want to think of the possibilities that are impossible to avoid.

In looking for young Oquendo, the autistic boy who went missing from his school in Long Island City, Queens last week, people started looking places they did not look before: in the eyes of young black boys.  They have begun looking with concern in places they didn’t bother to before.  Maybe it is because of the shame reflected in such eyes that so many people simply avoid their fears.  Avonte looks out from the fliers on subway walls and street light posts and pillars of Chase Metrotech buildings.  My information is cobbled together largely from snippets online that I at first ignored because who knows when someone is missing and when someone just wants you to share a link.  The MTA got on board.  They shut trains down one night to look for him.   After I heard that, I started seeing the fliers.  I had already seen Avonte in the footage of him running from his school.  I wondered why he was running.  I thought he had been teased or bullied.  It was something about the way he ran – and I’m only now learning that he left the school early, and the school – a special needs school – was on lock-down for an hour searching for him before they contacted the parents.  Maybe from my own often unsunny experiences in elementary school and junior high I recognize his body language.  Someone had teased him.  He was running from something.  Why aren’t the kids talking, those who saw him last?

For now, we just look.  There’s a small army of people looking, some actively, volunteering their time and all they have for the search.  Others, like me, looking passively, but looking, and wondering what a 14 year old boy who looks much younger might be?  5’3″ and 120 lbs. means nothing to me.  While I look, the week moves on.  New news unfurls.

In Philadelphia, a photographer posted online photographs whose subjects had catcalled her just moments before the pictures were shot.  The subjects are almost all Black men, looking straight into the camera.  The photos force the viewer to see them, to look them square in the eye.  I see, or imagine, in their faces, variably and in some cases together, bemusement, shame, expectancy, and in some a touch of humor.

There are two sisters in Chicago, heroin addicts in their mid to late twenties, who lost their kids several years ago but are wanting to get them back.  They spoke out this week in the stinging strong language of pictures to warn others against the danger of a drug they used that rots the skin off its users from the inside out, leaving them two years to live, by most accounts.  They provided the proof in pictures that many have been wanting to see, and the rest of us too morbidly fascinated to look away.  There was a death in Oklahoma that may be the first U.S. fatality of the mix from Russia that is a concoction of lighter fluid, paint thinner, matchboxes and crushed codeine.  It’s a cheaper high than heroin.  The online headlines blare this news nearly like they’re giddy.  There is an end-of-the-worldness to the presence of this evil among us.  Like now there may be some predestined manifestation of the cultish predictions that zombies will be the first to ring in the apocalypse.

In San Francisco, a man walked onto a crowded train and waved a gun.  Nobody noticed.  He pointed the gun at a stranger.  Nobody saw.   He picked his target based on who knows what?  A sound?  A tie?  A color?  The man took out his gun and shot a man dead on a crowded train.  The victim was a student from SFSU.  The media said everyone was too absorbed in their phones and electronic gadgets.  The phenomenon was here long before i-phones, and i-pads and blackberries and the whole panoply of gadgetry.   The day after I read the news about the killer on the train in San Francisco, I though I saw more people paying attention on the subway.  Maybe they’d heard about it too.  Maybe they were looking for the eyes of Avonte.

Some nights this week, I’ve walked the street up from the steps off the train to the steps of my home as if in a shell, or wanting one.  My trusty old shell would roll me untouched, all the way to my door.  The door, by the way, has handles that just this week fell off on front and back sides.  My door is now pulled open and closed only by its lock.  It’s like the handles got tired of being here and just had to drop off for awhile.

I, too, have wanted to lock out the world.  But I can’t.  I look.  A friend once told me, years ago, that headphones in public, and on public transportation in particular, was a type of cop-out, disengaging from the world around, ignoring human beings and our present state of being.  I have thought this week about the little boy from my neighborhood who, a couple years ago, was walking home by himself for the first time, a mere matter of blocks, got turned around and asked the worst person for directions.  People looked different after that.

There are some stories that grab us and we don’t know why, or maybe we do.  There are stories, like Avonte’s, that grip me, grab me and induce spontaneous prayer.  They make me beg for my mother to pick up the phone so I can tell her about him because she prays better than I do.  She kisses the feet on the cross, and cries for the pain of others when no one but God is watching or cares.  And she doesn’t write about it after.  I have been compelled to call on angels this week.  I see them walking with Avonte, surrounding and protecting him.

Night before last I walked up to my door after another long day of work. My neighbor and her children were in front of theirs, and I said hello.  The mother told me tomorrow was Eid.  I asked her what you say to celebrate Eid.  She told me and I mumbled it back, quickly forgetting the words but hoping somehow the meaning floated through my bludgeoning it.  The daughter, who helped her mother learn English when the girl was only 8 and they had just moved in, always has had a bluntness about her that is both admirable and annoying.  It comes, I believe, from speaking English in America when your parents don’t.  She looked at me from her newly slender but always beautiful face that only a 15 year old can have, and said, “You look tired.”

Everyone’s looking this week.  Everyone.

After they first shut down the trains to look for Avonte, they began making announcements.  Avonte is missing.  Was last seen wearing a gray striped shirt.  And I wonder, as I have all week, whether the stripes are up and down or a cross.  And suddenly again I’m calling on the angels like I rarely have before, trying to conjure up all the goodness there is in the world, and the little bit of kindness, and pray it is in his path — that this child lost in the world encounter the good, and loving and kind, that wherever he is, he not be afraid and that he have no reason to be, that he merely went in search of his voice, and that his return be a testament to the power of prayer and the collective will called from all that is decent and pure in each of us, that we can help guide this child home, and that together we can save one person, this one beautiful, frail, brilliant, sparkling one.

** I started writing this as I was standing on the platform at the Jay Street/Metrotech station on the F line.  When the train arrived in the station, I saw that it was as usual pretty crowded.  There was one open seat, next to a black man hunched over in his seat, head down, sleeping.  I didn’t sit next to him but I wanted to.  People stood, ignoring the empty seat.  Eventually a youngish white man, looking ever the part of the Greenpoint farmhand, finally sat down beside him.  I found a corner seat that opened up and finished writing.  When I began looking up links for this story, as I was going through it, I found that the parents are instructing the public that Avonte cannot care for himself, and that his clothes will likely be soiled by now, and that he may not even answer to his own name.  His mother has recorded a message being played through speakers on search vehicles.   She tells him to walk toward the lights and not be afraid.  If you see him, the media says to call authorities first (they don’t say 911 but that’s what I’m assuming), since he may run if approached suddenly.  He also may no longer be responding to his name.  See here for more information and to join in the search: https://www.facebook.com/events/438061952969335/?previousaction=join&source=1.


Kid Fears

29 Sep

There certainly are advantages of having been through it all before — having a 23 year old that I didn’t taint or maim so much that she’s not capable of surviving on her own.  It helps with some things when it comes to my younger daughter, now just 3.  But the error is in thinking that there’s any such thing as having been through it all before, since no two children are the same, and I’m not the same as when my 23 year old was 3, and my life is not the same either, nor are the people who are in it.  Although my experience with my older daughter lends some insight, and provides some degree of confidence or comfort, warranted or not, I am at a loss when my younger one presents some challenge or difficulty that I somehow sidestepped with my other daughter.  I was reminded tonight of that limit of experience.

My older daughter, A, called me today feeling lousy about a $500 visit to the eye doctor yesterday.  She is cursed with my poor vision.  One thing that never was too big a problem for her, though, was fear – of dark, of sleep, of whatever fears there are that plague so many children.  Z, my three year old, gets very afraid at night.  When pressed, she says she’s afraid of the dark.  But even when all lights are left on, she still cries, “I’m scared.  I’m scared.”  No amount of conversation can bring us to a greater understanding of the reason for this fear.  She understands that her father and I are here in the house, and within ear shot, that we are checking in on her every so often, that there is nothing to be afraid of.  But clearly there is something to be afraid of or she wouldn’t be afraid.

The most frustrating part of this, though, is that as advanced as she is a communicator for her age, she still is unable to articulate the cause of her fear, or what she might be thinking about or ruminating on when she’s lying in bed.  Of course I want to guess and see if I happen to hit the nail on the head but of course I don’t want to feed her fuel for fears that hadn’t occurred to her before.  So I scan the room, aiming my eyeballs in all directions, trying to find any source of spooky shadow or other lingering illusion.  I can’t find it.  And then I think of a recent conversation with my mother.

We were talking on the phone as I took my dog out for a night walk.  I was pleased to hear my mother say that she has started focusing on a more nutritious diet, one that is targeted at reducing inflammation, to help fight health issues she’s been battling for some time.  I relate to her that I have been doing the same thing in my own way, that it occurred to me recently, particularly as a relatively older parent to my youngest one that I have an obligation to her to take good care of myself.  I heard my mother, in her silence, tense up.  I quickly reassured her, “Not like I’ve been beating myself up over it, just that it occurred to me, and I’m looking forward to changing a few things.”  I found myself assuaging her by telling her I was not feeling bad – I did not want her to feel bad, thinking I was feeling bad.  Something about this effort bothered me, lingered long after our conversation.  I found myself slightly annoyed and couldn’t pinpoint why right away.  Then it occurred to me: people are so afraid of feeling bad, that we avoid the feeling bad and lose the correction that feeling bad maybe was meant to bring.  There is such an aversion to feeling sad, shame, embarrassment, weakness, fear, even anger (but anger to a less extent because anger has a more direct correlation with power whereas the other emotions tend toward the power-less end of the spectrum).  By not wanting me to feel bad, she was in her own way not letting me grow.  In my reassuring her I wasn’t feeling bad, I wasn’t letting her grow.

In scanning the room for any little thing that might instill fear in Z, I was giving her the illusion that I could control her sense of fear, and thus was preventing her from coping with the difficult emotion herself, and stopping her from arriving at the sense of power and control that will come with that accomplishment.  I’m sure this realization does not mean I will stop scanning the room, and removing things that really should be moved — the strings hanging down by the curtains, the scissors left out, some of the general mess that simply makes me feel better for moving before she drifts to sleep.  And having the realization certainly doesn’t instruct me how to translate it into any particular tools or magic words that will help Z conquer her fears.  But perhaps that’s part of the point — those tools largely will be hers, not mine.  I just have to figure out how to try to not feel so bad myself while experiencing her feeling bad.  And that part of parenting, for better or worse, is all too familiar.   It’s the essence of Parent Fears, and what we have from our kid’s first cry of pain to a phone call like the one I got today.  It’s the powerlessness over many aspects of our kids’ fears.  It’s the plague of parenting, and it’s completely necessary.  Without it, we wouldn’t care enough.  When facing it and embracing it, we learn that there really is much over which we are completely powerless, and that we’re not supposed to have power over, and that’s how we learn to let go, and let them grow.

Living in Brooklyndia

31 Jul

My family has the small food company, Brooklyn Bell.  We make granola bars and ice cream.  When my older daughter, A, and I lived in this house (long before my youngest, Z, was born), the ice cream truck used to pull up in front of our house and wait for us.  Now when the truck goes by, my younger daughter barely bats an eye.  I don’t, in fact, remember her ever asking for ice cream from the ice cream truck – maybe once when my mother was visiting, egged on of course by grandma.

Yesterday as I was coming back from our shared commercial kitchen in Sunset Park (Brooklyn), I had a quick bit of lunch with the folks from another food company there.  We started discussing who made good coffee.  McDonald’s and Dunkin Doughnuts came up (this was not a snobby food convo – it was about who had good [read good and, importantly, “cheap”] coffee).  After I left the kitchen, I stopped by Dunkin Doughnuts to fuel up on some caffeine and for the first time in a long time, the doughnuts called to me, so I also got three doughnuts to share with Z and the babysitter at home.  It has been so long since I’ve ordered doughnuts, I didn’t even know what to call these ones I was looking at so I just asked for those doughnut with the rainbow sprinkle star things on them.  I got one with chocolate, one with strawberry and one with white icing.  When I got home, I cut them into thirds and scarfed mine down embarrassingly quickly.  The sitter finished her plate, but Z got distracted because she still had a trip to the park planned, so I covered that plate and put away what was left of her doughnuts.

This morning, Z asked for them immediately.  As she was finishing off the last of the doughnuts, she said, “These are yummy, mommy.  Who made them?”  So this is what it is to raise a kid in artisanal food land.  Concepts like large, hugely successful mass-produced food companies are somewhat foreign.  Now, I hope we can just get to having more small, hugely successful small-batch food companies, including ours.

Thanks De La Vega for Reminding Me Life is Short

25 Jul

It’s a terrible reminder.  Terribly important.  I’m drinking my morning coffee out of a cup that tells me, “This moment is more precious than you think.”  I chose to torture myself with this reminder when I bought the cup from the little shop that James De La Vega had in the East Village on St. Marks, across from Yaffa Cafe.  The shop’s no longer there, and I haven’t seen the street artist turned politician turned back to artist since.

So as I had my morning coffee, I let the message sink in, and I paid attention to what my three-year-old was saying.  More specifically, I paid attention to her words.  Today, instead of saying “yesterday,” she says “last day.”  Today, when she tells me she wants milk, and I say, “How do you ask nicely,” she still says, “Please will you have some milk?”

I also listened to all those people on Facebook, who in the face of tragedy tell us all to hug our loved ones a little closer, to appreciate the moments with them.  It’s not just in times of tragedy we should be remembering to do this.  I held her close this morning when she was saying these words that I know will be spoken “correctly” soon enough.  Her vocabulary is nearly already fully developed, and we have discussions about homonyms, and what words like “appear” and “disappear” mean.  She’s a word person, too, like me, which is all the more reason I love listening to how her voice expresses her mind’s thoughts.  There’s a purity and innate sensical-ness to it.  When I held her close, I kissed her hair and could smell that still little child smell she has, no longer baby but traces of it.  I was late getting her to school, which is not unusual.  There is a balance between enjoying the preciousness of those moments and living in a scheduled life.  But sometimes the balance is ignored, and we seize those moments, as we should.

Today, there were more things that I noticed in the moment but my memory can’t keep up with the moments.  And that makes me very sad.  I have said that there is nothing so painful or joyous as being a parent.  Long before my younger daughter was born, I remember recognizing how it hurt that my older daughter’s childhood was gone.  I remember the first time that it struck me like a white-hot knife that I would never ever feel what it was like to hold her the way I did when she was three.  Life wasn’t entirely easy back then (young, single mom stuff and life in general stuff).  When she knew I was sad, she would gently pat my back, old little soul that she was.  Even just the memory of that, grateful as I was for it, gave me such an aching in my heart when I knew it was gone for good.  That’s when I realized the hardest part of parenting is simply the vast and boundless love it brings.

Twenty years later, I am keenly aware of the fleeting nature of these moments, and hold dear the experience of them, even though my memory is not big enough to hold close all that the heart does.

I Met a Real Jimmy. Her Name Is Plucky Pea.

26 Jun

Only in New York. More specifically, only in Brooklyn. So I went to a semi-business meeting to follow up on an introduction that had been made a few weeks ago at the birthday party of a local entrepreneur, everything Brooklyn artisan ombudsman, founder of By Brooklyn, Gaia DiLoreto. We were basking in the cool glow of ice cream by our food company, Brooklyn Bell, when I was briefly introduced to one of the owners of an upcoming shuffleboard bar to be opening in the increasingly cool area of town known simply as Gowanus. When I floated the idea of an ice cream/shuffleboard marriage by him, I was surprised by his receptivity. That’s all I needed to know to be sure he was my kind of people. So we met last week, and I got a chance to check out the massive space that is slated to be home to the Royal Palms in the nearish future. I had Lil Bit in tow, since I kept her out of daycare to avoid passing her cold along to the other kids. Before we left the house, I let her pick three toys to take with us with the intention she could entertain herself while Jonathan and I talked some super serious shuffleboard/ice cream matters.  She grabbed her long-handled (and loud) castanets, her small, fat red piano with four big plastic keys, something else that was overshadowed by the two other toys. Earlier that morning, I indulged her request and let her watch Nick Jr. beyond the usual one-Dora-a-day.  I found her enraptured with an episode of Bubble Guppies, which we don’t DVR and therefore don’t watch.  But, watching tv aimlessly, you find out there’s more than just the favorite, regularly DVR’d shows (and that’s when life gets complicated).

Back to our visit — when I showed up at the future site of the Royal Palms and Jonathan saw kiddo in the back of the caravan, he told me excitedly that we would be meeting his partner, Ashley, who knew all about kids and music as well.  Ashley rode with us to ta nearby veggie drink place and we learned on the way that she is a/k/a Plucky Pea and head of the celebrated kids’ band The Jimmies.  Not only that, but she stumbled into the gig from her voice-over work for kids’ TV shows, including one that we used to enjoy when we caught it in random, non-DVR’d tv moments – Jack’s Big Music Show.  Among her plethora of other personas?  None other than some of the Bubble Guppies (one episode is enough to catch ya but not enough to catch names).  I still don’t know if Lil Bit understood when I seized the opportunity to explain a career not typically included in the first offered options of “what do you want to be when you grow up.” Didn’t matter so much, though. Our business meeting ended happily in an impromptu dance/jump sesh right there in the juice spot, and although Kiddo was more interested in the store’s swivel seats and leaning over me and under me and on me throughout the meeting than the intended distractions, I still got the chance to meet a jane of all trades (Plucky Pea herself) and learn about the marvelous plans underway for Brooklyn’s first and only shuffleboard parlor. And there will be ice cream!





How do we have rules restricting the marketing

26 Jun

How do we have rules restricting the marketing of cigarettes but not guns to children? http://nyti.ms/120wjS2

18 Jun

Merry go round
a teller’s ball,
stories for the party,
I cannot catch
them all.

Wash & Wear or Just Wear

3 Jun

This question always plagued me but now thanks to the fancy spandangled Internet, I just hopped online and got an answer that I think is adequate enough.  Thank God for other people because they sometimes think of things I didn’t, like for example how many people were in Old Navy picking up those clothes before I did.



Living Well ExpertDr. Jennifer ShuPediatrician,
Children’s Medical Group

Expert answer

Thank you for your question. In general, I recommend that new clothes be washed before children wear them, especially if the clothing will be in direct contact with the skin. This is because the clothes have been handled by multiple people before being brought home, and it’s impossible to know what has touched the fabric. In addition, certain dyes in the fabric may leave a residue on the skin or rub off on other clothing. Also, products may have been sprayed onto the clothes to keep them fresh.

Some clothes are treated with chemicals to prevent the growth of certain bacteria. They may cause allergic reactions on the skin, especially in areas of friction or sweating. In addition, these chemicals can irritate the eyes, nose and breathing passages. While the United States places limits on the amount of preservatives that may be used on clothing, other countries have been known to allow higher levels.

Children tend to be more sensitive than adults to chemical irritants, so for clothes that are difficult to wash, it may be a good idea to try to air them out prior to wearing. Also, you may want to have the child wear light undergarments beneath them.



from http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/expert.q.a/12/17/revised.new.clothes.shu/


Time Deprived — What We Can Learn from the Gutai

2 Apr

I’m realizing it’s not that I don’t like working. It’s not that I can’t stand corporate culture. It’s not even the many long hours I’ve logged (fortunately not as long, recently, as the hours I put in as a litigation associate in some of the more notoriously hard-driving firms). If there were nothing else to do, all of that would be fine. The problem is that my life seems to somehow have gotten lost in the midst of the ladder climbing, off hours networking, and frequent spells of late nights into early morning hours and sometimes all nighters to crank out a brief or Wells submission. All of that compounded so that something also was lost in the wind-down period after work, when I tried to clear my head of memos that needed editing and witnesses to be prepped. I was fortunate enough to leave Big Law before demanding partners and nervous clients had 24 hour access to young associates via e-mail and iPhones. I did have a Blackberry, and a Blueberry (remember those, anyone?), but the technology was still new, and we were all wet behind the ears with it. Back then, it wasn’t yet a given that checking your email would be the first thing you did when you woke up in the morning and the last thing you did at night (and countless times in between). The practice of unfettered access to me and my mind had not yet become normalized, and as taken for granted as brushing your teeth. It was more like flossing — only practiced religiously by some (roughly 50% of all people).

Today is Day Two of being unemployed. Yesterday, a Monday, my mother was still here from her regular Easter visit. So we took the day and went to the Guggenheim on a whim (or instinct – the Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibit dovetailed perfectly with a book I just finished, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which I allowed myself time to read only because it was part of a book club I’ve been involved with for years, which is comprised of the mothers of my older daughter’s classmates, and is my sole source of regular socializing).

I knew we would be doing something but I didn’t know what. Mom has come from Wisconsin to visit several times a year since I moved out here 14 years ago. We’ve never had a day when I wasn’t working. I’ve meant to take time off for her visits, but it just never really worked out. We had weekends together, usually with me slipping in some work when she would go to take one of her long walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood, coming back with all the news of my nabe, and telling me about the people she had met — folks I have lived near for more than a dozen years but rarely had time to get to know. So yesterday, I was looking forward to merely doing anything that wasn’t working. We woke up and she suggested the Guggenheim. I was embarrassed that I had never been — you know, typical New Yorker, surrounded by the coolest stuff in the world and unable to take advantage because of putting in the long hours needed to live here. The eternal New Yorker’s dilemma. As I took care of a bit of paperwork before we left the house, she said that we didn’t have to go if it would be difficult to find the Guggenheim, and that she didn’t want us to spend all day looking for it. While my mother is fairly “hip,” occasionally she says something that reminds me she was indeed born 25 years before me. I reassured her all we had to do was look online and get directions. “Oh, okay, well only if it’s not a problem.” “No, Mom,” I said clearly confused by her skepticism — “That’s not a problem at all.”

She’d been to the Guggenheim one time before, an aborted trip 44 years ago. I’d heard this in passing before, but yesterday as we took the F to the 6 then walked up Lexington from 86th to 88th, turned left and continued to 5th Avenue (also known as Museum Mile, I pointed out to her), I collected previously undisclosed details. I guided her confidently on our trip, and she gave color to the trip she and Dad took so many years ago. It turns out they had spent the better part of a day looking for the museum. They got lost in Harlem, somehow ended up in Chinatown and got lost there too, went over the George Washington bridge several times and back (my father added this detail when I talked to him last night, and, typical Dad, pointed out that the toll back then was only $.50, and that now it would have been a very expensive detour). So Mom explained that by the time they got to the Guggenheim, she was suffering from a bad migraine and that by the time she circled around the third level of the museum’s iconic twisting interior, she was throwing up. When my mom throws up, she really throws up. She’s suffered migraines since I was little, so I have been unwilling witness to this more times than I can count. Having now walked the incline of the museum’s levels, I can imagine this particular museum is probably one of the worst places in the world to suffer a vomiting fit. My father is a buttoned-up kind of guy, in his own way. Not one for mess or plans derailed or being lost or inconvenience of any kind, I was thus surprised when Mom told me he offered to carry her in his arms back down the winding walkway. I appreciated hearing this snippet of tenderness between my parents, who have been separated since I was five. She said it with an appreciative kind of tenderness in her voice too. Last night when Dad saw my pictures from the Guggenheim posted online, he called and shared a couple other details of their trip. I told him I was surprised when Mom said they did not necessarily intend to come to New York, that they just decided to “head east,” with no particular destination in mind (again, very atypical of my father). He confirmed this; they left Beloit in their little black 1965 Mustang in September 1968 and ended up in New York. The hotel recommended by Dad’s Air Force buddy, Skipper Smith, who he had been stationed with in Grand Forks (where he met Mom) and later Panama (where they eloped), turned out to be so seedy that my parents slept with their clothes on and over (not under) the blankets. Not surprisingly, their NYC trip spanned no more than a couple days. They left the gritty city and headed for the more hospitable Niagara Falls. Despite their roller coaster trip in a city fully contrary to my Dad’s core conservatism and my mother’s Catholic traditionalism, old video footage of their visit and the stories I’ve heard throughout the years, tells me it was a time they both still cherish. They were free, young, and in love. And I like to think that in some grand scheme of things way, my choosing to make this place home had something to do with their visit. Maybe it was the unlikely sight of my mom and dad, surrounded by Hari Krishnas in Battery Park. If nothing else, I knew the place was interesting.

Yesterday, Mom and I circled all the way to the top of the Guggenheim, and all the way back down. I took a picture of her near the very top of the circle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lightness in her eyes before. For her, this was a circle completed. For me, it was one just opening up. Viewing the art was like a salve to my computer weary eyes. I thought of my youngest daughter, Z, who has not yet been to a museum. I thought of my older daughter, A, and wished we had been to more. But, most importantly, I was thinking about the moment. It’s hard not to be in the moment when you’re looking at Franz Marc’s “Yellow Cow,” or Kandinsky’s “Small Pleasures,” or reading the Gutai manifesto, where everything is about being concrete and letting matter and material speak for itself, or standing inside a giant cube made of red vinyl (a refabrication of a work originally by Tsuruko Yamazaki) or looking for a marker (they all had disappeared) to draw on the communal stand-alone surface called Please Draw Freely, originally conceived by Jiro Yoshihara for the outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, from which many of the pieces currently on exhibit were drawn. I think my favorite piece of the Gutai exhibit was Yoshihara Jiro’s Circle, made, I noticed, in 1971, the year I was born. It is just a white circle on a black square. But to me, it says everything. Everything that cannot be put into words. And thus we have art.

And, yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I had time to look at art. My mind was not weighed down with to do’s still undone. I was free, young (it’s all relative), and in love with the moment. The toll that over-working takes on individuals (and, by extension, families) is extensive and expensive. We pay other people to teach our kids art, culture, and music because we don’t have the time (or by the time we do have the time, we don’t have the energy) to do it ourselves. The Gutai movement, which was started in Japan by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954 and was active until his death in 1972, was a collective of artists who believed art was key to breaking the chains of totalitarianism. Its audience was often children, since it was (wisely) believed they held the key to building a future of free thinkers. Play was therefore key in their process and approach, and many of the exhibits and installations encourage play. In the few hours a day most families have together anymore, there’s barely time to take care of the essentials like getting mouths fed, dishes washed, clothes cleaned, bodies bathed, homework done, floors vacuumed (and rarely can we tick all those off the list in a given day or week), let alone add time for play. This loss of play is hard on us, our kids, our relationships, our health.

What may be most damaging to the fabric of us, as a people, is that by the time we get to taking care of the essentials, our bodies and minds are drained, with no built-in charger. Like the Gutai manifesto says, “Art is the home of the creative spirit … .” There’s not time for the things that heal us, like writing, drawing, meditation, music, prayer, gathering for the sake of gathering, long dinners, story telling, breaking bread and sharing wine. Other cultures have maintained some of this social nourishment. Why can’t we? There seems to be a recognition that something has broken and needs healing. There are groups like ArtJamz, a public space that encourages creation of art for art’s sake. And organizations like see.me, which is in the vanguard of democratizing art (and once that happens, hopefully more people will be creating art), and there are still the vestiges of a freer time, like the Lower East Side’s A Gathering of the Tribes, a writers’ and artists’ community started by Steve Cannon, now 78 and still running it from his couch, where everyone, even if you’ve never been there before, is a writer or artist and, if being introduced by Steve, is “the best damn [poet/artist/fill in the blank] around.” Although these places exist, it’s still going to take something more to fix the bigger problem. It will take employers to see the whole person and not just a worker. It will take a movement, the kind that unfortunately doesn’t usually ignite until we’ve hit rock bottom (keep in mind the Gutai movement was born in post-war Japan, and first received widespread recognition when it invited Time magazine to cover an exhibit it put on in a bombed out building), and I don’t know that we’re there yet, even for as exhausted as we are now.

If one thing is clear, it’s that it hasn’t always been like this. My mom and dad’s tale of setting out with “no particular place to go” decades ago is all the evidence I need to know that it’s not my imagination that time is not what it used to be. My dad traveled a lot for his job as I was growing up. He was in the first wave of frequent fliers, who collected their miles and had few restrictions on how to use them. By the time I was 15, he had built up so many miles that we were able to take a trip (back when frequent flyer miles were still transferable to other people) to Japan. I was surprised he chose Japan. He’s a meat and potatoes, ultra patriotic (“U-S-A, U-S-A”) American. I still need to go back to try some sushi. We ate at all the McDonald’s and Red Lobsters we could find. I also need to go back — even if it’s in philosophy and not geography — to see if I can’t find the source of play, and some way to create time for it. This may just be one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. I always have been a firm believer that time is an invention. But life isn’t. And even if we can’t re-create time, maybe we can recreate our lives in it.

Another Name for a Three Way

26 Mar

And what exactly is meant by a “MULTI-WAY”? Aerie, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. But I guess you can’t know shame if you don’t know modesty.

Aerie is the underwear company started by American Eagle Outfitter (AEO) in 2006, which targets the “teen lingerie market” according to businessinsider.com, and which recently hired Jenn Rogien, the costume designer from the HBO series “Girls,” and also promotes the “concert bra,” a push-up bra promoted at the music festival Coachella, which can be worn on its own or with outer garments and which comes with matching panties. Aerie runs an ad with a close up to illustrate their push-up bra that adds two cup sizes. The image is followed by another showing animated words “DOUBLE WHOA” appearing on top of the feigning surprised young model’s body. Although the company purports to target the 18 to 21 age group, Bloomberg reports that Aerie’s VP of Global Merchandising, Jennifer Foyle, admitted recently that the younger focus is “timely because you do see this as a growing category in the industry for sure.”  PrimalGrowth business strategy consultants state the obvious: “Stores are all going to say they’re targeting the 18- to 22- year olds, but the reality is you’re going to get the younger customer.”  Of course the companies say they’re not targeting tweens, but parents, rightfully, aren’t buying it.  Another parent of a three-year old (my own daughters are 23 and almost 3), wrote a letter to Victoria’s Secret expressing his concern about the sexualization of young girls, and it must be striking a chord because it’s gone viral, and VS is denying his claims (my lady doth protest too much?).

On Valentine’s Day this year, Bloomberg.com ran a story about the burgeoning tween lingerie industry. According to the article, female intimate apparel (I don’t think we can call it “women’s” anymore) is an $11.1 billion industry, with Victoria’s Secret youth line “Pink” estimated to take $3 billion of the market in just a few years. American Eagle was among top-performing retail stocks last year, at a time when it is cutting back on other apparel in favor of expanding its lines of bra, underwear and loungewear (Aerie F.I.T. line – not sure I want to know what that is said to stand for behind closed AEO doors – but I invite any AEO’rs to spill the beans — I promise anonymity).

One thing AEO needs to keep in mind is that parents, moms of girls in particular (and I rarely distinguish between moms and dads but here is a rare occasion it’s appropriate), hate being the object of deception. While Aerie is claiming to target 18 to 21 year olds, it runs ads where a young looking and acting model skips topless, wearing thongs, making faces, holding her hair up in pigtails, playing peekaboo, undressing, swaying her hips while standing pigeon-toed and pouty-mouthed, floating toy sailboats in a pond wearing nothing but bra and panties, while a young Mick Jagger like voice sings “I just wanna run away with you.” Multiple times, the word “PRETTY” is seen in white lettering on a boathouse behind the almost naked model.

Aerie’s Foyle told Bloomberg, “[w]e really use the word ‘pretty’ more than ‘sexy’ — that’s really not the Aerie girl.” From a quick search, it appears Aerie primarily uses Sports Illustrated swimsuit models for their ads (Nina Agdal and Cintia Dicker). Pretty not sexy, huh?

I found the Aerie ads on several sites that clearly view the ads as more sex than aesthetics.  One, guyspeed.com, describes Aerie as a “mall lingerie store for college-aged girls and those who skew a wee but younger,” and calls a holiday commercial featuring Agdal’s “rock hard body,” “certainly more, uh, mature…”  It continues, stating, “We really like it when she models undies for Aerie. We get to see lots of her body.”  Another, whoisthathotadgirl.tumbler.com features several Aerie ads, introducing “another American Eagle commercial featuring Cintia (with a little topless action…).”  On spike.com, the “PRETTY” ad is described: “Brazilian model Cintia Dicker’s breasts go “Whoa” and increase in this sexy” — note, not pretty — “new spot for Aerie’s push-up bras.”

So what does Rogien think of girl’s underwear, if it’s not sex?  Before being hired by Aerie, the former Girl’s show costume designer told Women’s Wear Daily that lingerie factored into each character.  According to Rogien, “There’s a lot of sex in the show, but its not sexy sex. It’s awkward, funny and sometimes silly sex, and underwear is a big part of it. There’s a lot of underwear as we head into these sex scenes,” she said.  This distinction between “funny” and “silly” sex (as opposed to, what, grumpy and grave sex) sounds more like justification.  It’s an awful lot like her distinction between sexy and pretty — useless.

Even the leering boy bloggers know what’s up.  Spike.com comments on Aerie’s ad campaign titled “Love is Funny.”  (Sounding familiar?)  They note: “Why [is it called “Love is Funny]? I have no idea. The video doesn’t seem to have anything to do with love, and is not funny. At all. You may fall in love with Cintia and her model friends that traipse around in their underwear giggling and loving life. But that’s more lust than love, right?  And there is nothing wrong with lust.”  Well, it depends — on a lot, age probably being first and foremost.

Aerie, you remind me of a 13 year old who tells me the peppermint schnapps smell is from the candy canes at her school’s Christmas party and that the smoke is second hand. Moms can smell BS a mile away, and you are putting it right under our noses. Your crossing the line may raise your stock in the short term and endear you to skeezy and horny adolescent males, but at least in the tween category, we still hold the purse strings.

Aerie, of course, isn’t the only offender.  Victoria’s Secret is the center of a firestorm over its plans (now shelved) to launch a line aimed at a younger audience (like, Aerie, VS denies that its targeting very young girls, but the ads speak for themselves).  Its “Bright Young Things” campaign has gotten whiplash over the backlash, with countless people vowing to ban not just the line but the VS brand if it goes forward with the full launch, and an online petition at www.forcechange.org asking the CEO to stop the objectification of young girls and women.  It reads, in part:  “[you] feature younger looking teen models who are scantily clad and provocatively posed and the slogan, ‘Bright Young Things.’  By choosing to target teenagers with your new line, you are condoning teen sexuality and portraying teens as sexual objects.  Your slogan refers to young women as ‘things,’ rather than many more appropriate alternatives.”  I wonder at what point the negative press stops being free advertising for these companies and becomes the wake up call it should be.

The issue has become more serious than whether parents will buy the bra (or whatever else they’re selling) or young girls will find a way to buy it themselves, or if boys will buy it for them.

In February, New Jersey busted a child pornography ring, arresting 25 individuals, including two who were regular baby sitters and one who was a registered sex offender.  The porn obtained in the bust included footage of children ranging from toddlers to ten-year olds who were the victims of rape, sodomy, necrophilia, bestiality and other incomprehensible crimes against humanity.  The ring spanned eleven counties across the state.  According to reports, the files also showed prepubescent boys and girls being sexually molested or being forced into performing sex acts on themselves or others.

Aerie, I’m not saying you are responsible for sexual crimes against children, but targeting a very young market with ads like the one that arrived at my door this morning that sound like the name of a porn flick (“MADDIE MULTI-WAY”), you are walking a line too thin to ignore.  You hire the savviest, most experienced advertisers, marketers, and decision makers for your company.  Don’t tell me you didn’t intend the double entendres.  It is a slippery slope from accepting this kind of sexual imagery to child porn just being taken as a fact of life.

It is unacceptable.



%d bloggers like this: