Sunday, October 28, 2007

lessons from maira

The jacket flap of Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty (The Penguin Press, $29.95) asks, "What is this book? What is anything?" Well, to partly answer the first question: it's a visual journal of a year in the life of a renowned artist, designer, & author of children's books. And it is, of course, more than that.

It's almost certain that few people fail to describe Kalman's work without relying on a certain nine-letter, three-syllable word beginning with wh-, so it won't be employed here. Better, perhaps, to point out that the great thing is she gets to do whatever she wants--to focus on a pickle tag one moment & on Abraham Lincoln or Fyodor Dostoevsky the next; to follow ephemeral, sometimes oddball thoughts & turn them into drawings, musings, memories. She illustrates selected items from her collections of empty boxes, sponges (Cleanbot is one, Trista another--the latter a "sandwitch scrubber"), mosses of Long Island, & candy bars (the most treasured of which is Cuban & called Cratch).

Despite the vivid colors & pages devoted to major hairdos, abandoned sofas, & everyday objects that, like the accidental art of a photograph unearthed in a thrift shop, deserve to be immortalized, it is evident that serious issues are ever present in this artist's head. Early in the book she abruptly writes, "What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief--isn't that the central premise of EVERYTHING?"

Kalman talks about her mother, "and why she did not marry the man she loved, but instead married my father." A suitcase she owns once belonged to a man who fled Danzig in 1939. "As if I need reminders of the Holocaust. That's ALL I think about." But the pages of Principles of Uncertainty are also peopled by the likes of Lolita, in pink bunny costume, who "has a thick Brooklyn accent, but she says she is British. Oh well." After this encounter Kalman goes home & washes dishes, which she says is an antidote for confusion.

And what of her realization that we are all going to die? "IT stops me DEAD in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain FROZEN? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction."

Monday, October 22, 2007


A clear night with the moonset a bit after two meant excellent conditions for watching this year's Orionids shower. Wrapped in a yellow sleeping bag, yr. correspondent lay on a slight rise by the bay at four thirty in the morning & confirmed the experts' assertion that meteors would shoot across the sky at a rate of twenty to fifty an hour. Anyone observering last night did not have to wait long in between appearances: once, two meteors headed in different directions burned up simultaneously; another time, three streaks of brief light in less than a minute. Sirius was so bright it seemed as though someone had left on a naked bulb in a bedroom, but there was no chance of asking for it to be turned off. The Big Dipper stood on its handle, the magician who commanded it to defy gravity hidden offstage. Only the rhythmic sounds of crickets & wavelets interrupted the calm until the night train in the distance sent out horn calls as it headed into town.

The gorgeous stars are, however, indifferent to our lives. It's up to us to care for each other.

Friday, October 12, 2007

go on, make up a narrative