It’s worth 100 blog posts, packing. It’s a never-ending development opportunity, so unloved finding this on the NYTimes today:
There is no picture to go with this post, and for that, I apologize. But you can make one for yourself. Go ahead. I will help.
Close your eyes. Go on – close them. Close your eyes, and take a breath – slow, long, and deep. I’ll tell you what the breath smells like: clean, a little sweet with the scent of fecundity. Fall sun, the whisper of winter, a slight afternote of salt floating in. Now let out that breath and take another. And while you take it in, listen, and I will tell you what you hear: nothing.
You hear nothing, and that nothing is everything. It is the space that is made for a pair of mergansers to fly across a field and alight on the pond near you. It is the space that is made for a sudden wind to blow – strong enough that you can see it coming across the still surface of the water and listen as it shakes down the alders and birch and begins the winter process of stripping them bare. On its way, it bats the apples from the trees by the beach to the ground with a heavy, abusive thud that leaves sugar spots on their skin and calls the deer to feed, their slow chew a silence of its own, until they sense your presence and stop, perking up their heads in a frozen stance and then prancing away – a hop almost like a rabbit – the pattern of it smashing grass beneath their feet with the quiet underbeat of a drum.
Let out your breath and take another. Keep your eye closed. Here come the geese, the heaviness of their wings sweeping by you like a brush across a snare drum – sleepy, slow, the shushing of mother nature putting the earth down for a nap. The beat of fall. If you whistle for the dog, he will come, too, soft and silent across the grass and then faster, his own background beat, louder as he comes to your feet and stops suddenly and it is silent, except for his heavy pant of breath, backed up by a faint lap of waves sipping from the rocky shore and swallowing shells back down to sea with the tinkling of a wind chime.
This is what silence looks like. This is the picture to send with this post – of stillness and breath, of a life that happens around you like a quiet background beat of a drum to steady the earth’s breathing, and your own.
Now, open your eyes. Take a deep breath and try to hold on to that picture while the sounds of the city replace it with the cacophony of urban-ness, an aural affront that wakes your brain to alertness. It is endless, unpatterned: the unpredictable whine of a siren down La Brea. The inevitable, irrational hum of a helicopter over Hollywood, or the highway, or on a trip to the beach – the Uber of the rich driving through your backyard – louder, louder, closer, too close, too loud, receding, gone. Replaced in irregular waves of sound and motion. The neighbors are having the same discussion about their relationship across the alley over the one constant: the whir of air conditioning units pushing too hard at work, broken at irregular intervals by plumbing from the floor beneath you, so loud it may be in your own kitchen or bath.
These are the sounds of the city, and they create a picture of their own. The backdrop is an uncontrollable foreground that we don’t breathe in. We don’t move to them so much as follow them along, dodging their beat, letting go of our own, occasionally in step, or stepping aside. Welcome back to LA. Welcome back to the wake up.
People keep asking me how I like LA. Or how I came to be here. Or if I think I’m staying.
I, myself, barely remember that I am here lately. This is the first weekend in 7 weeks that I’ve slept in my own zip code, and between those weekends, I’ve been working a good number of 11- and 12-hour days at the office. In weeks like that, does it matter where one lives?
And yet it does. Because where else but LA could you take four pieces of art that have been sitting in your apartment, patiently awaiting frames for a year, to finally get the love they deserve, and end up taking the dog for a walk in that ultimate commitment to never leaving LA: Hollywood Forever Cemetery?
Tucked between the Paramount lot and Santa Monica Blvd, with a clear view of the infamous Hollywood sign on most days, Hollywood Forever Cemetery has a little of something to love from every corner of this city. There are Russian Orthodox here, and Russian Jews, and German Jews, and just plain Jewish Jews. I would imagine there are some just plain Russians and Germans and Chinese and Japanese and Vietnamese and Italians and maybe some Brits and people of other sorts, but I didn’t happen upon their individual ‘neighborhoods.’ There’s a Jewish mausoleum and a Catholic mausoleum and a giant empty space of mausoleum waiting to be filled with anyone ready to commit to whatever Hollywood brings on.
On a sunny Saturday that threatened to heat up, numerous palm trees and other deciduous arboreal delights provided ample shade and some wandering space for the dog. Like the rest of LA, the cemetery is absurdly dog-friendly. Of course it is – it’s the eternal home of Toto.
The grass is pleasingly unkempt; the cemetery (unlike LA) is not overly-coiffed. Its natural irregularity is inviting, and I was tempted to wander through the crowded rows of tombstones on a plush offroad journey. But I was informed by a friendly but firm security guard that dogs must stay off the grass. The reason, he pointed out from his seat on an official golf cart, is because the graves and some of their stones ride right up against the curb in a significant portion of the park.
The stones are worthy of their own rolling credits. It’s not the people who lie within or beneath them – though there is a Golden Age of Hollywood Who’s Who list buried here – it’s the pure variety of the stones themselves. They are stones the size of ledger paper. There are stones flush to the ground. There are stones the size of coffins, and stones that are sarcophagi; stones engraved with the symbols of Masons and Oddfellows, Stars of David and Coptic crosses, and things I’ve never seen before. There are family plots that are monuments themselves; there are crypts and obelisks and something that looks like a cross between a real pyramid and a pyramid you’d find on the Vegas Strip, but of course, this is Hollywood, and what is Vegas but a variation on that theme?
There are homages here. To mothers, and sons, to brothers and daughters and great grandparents ‘united in eternity’ side by side, their portraits etched in granite above them.
There are artists and actors and singers and writers and producers and directors and normal Joe’s. There are granddaughters now walking with canes and aided by great granddaughters carrying picnics to visit family members on a sunny afternoon. There are mourners gathered, and empty chairs set up awaiting more. And there are tourists – foreign and domestic, and local, like myself, wandering through a local past and wondering about the future. It’s a village of passed souls breathing a little life to those of us still walking above them, looking up at the palm trees and blue sky, and wondering how we got to this incredible place.
You think you know Van Gogh. Don’t we all? His sunflowers, the time in Arles, his self portraits, and of course, the dreadful ear. Maybe you’ve heard about the recently discovered Sunset at Montmajour, or the record-setting price ($39.9MM) Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers won at auction in 1987. This is the Van Gogh that most of us know. In Amsterdam, however, here’s what I learned: we don’t know Van Gogh.
When I was young, my father brought me a poster from a Van Gogh exhibit. It was the ubiquitous painting Bedroom in Arles, and I loved it. I found peace in its broad brush strokes and strong outlines, both hallmark Van Gogh, and the unapologetic use of color, which in this piece, he specifically chose, “to suggest a certain rest or dream,” as he noted in a letter to his brother. And of course, I loved that the blond wood frame bed closely resembled my own bunkbeds, recently unstacked to accommodate my imminent adolescence.
For years since then, I have still loved Van Gogh for the same reasons – his boldness, his outlines, his color. The crazy flawed humanity that accompanies the desire to remove one’s own ear. At some point in college, I learned where he fit in the larger canon of artists and I’m sure that it made perfect sense, but over time, those are the things I forget. The color, the vision, and the sense of calm they bring are a sense memory that sticks with me.
What I got when I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was far more than I expected. With so many of his the works so close together, I could understand the development of Van Gogh as an artist – one, I learned, who died when he was only 37, and was most prolific during the last decade of his life, which ended in 1890. While I recognize him for these more well known works that have been easily accessible to me, I discovered much more of his beauty in smaller, quiet pieces, like Sloping Path in Montmarte.
I gleaned a bit of his sense of humor in his Head of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, which is familiar now as the cover of the David Sedaris book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. When I learned that the details of cadavers (anatomically accurate) were part of Van Gogh’s art schooling, and that he added the smoke as a humorous act of rebellion or boredom, I enjoyed him – and this painting – even more. How Sedaris must have loved learning this fact given his own adoration of smoking and his exclamation that he loved Paris because you could smoke everywhere, including the waiting room of the hospital. I loved it for entirely different reasons: I could imagine my grandfather, an accomplished painter and irreverent soul, doing the same. And there I am, closer even still to this painter who died a century before I graduated high school.
Where the museum really wins is in the science. Want to know how art historians determine whether the artist was mixing his paints and creating his works plen air or back in the studio? It may be something that never occurred to you, but even those who aren’t into art will love the pigment analyses and microscope images of sand grains embedded in the art that help determine where it was created, and with what. It’s common knowledge that artists reused their boards or canvases, but in Amsterdam, you can see the x-ray photographs of cross sections of canvases revealing multiple layers of paint that confirm more than just the masterpiece on the surface, and you can view the recto and verso of boards with practice paintings, including some of the many birds nest series.
This is barely scratching the surface. Speaking of surface scratches, want to know how different an art may look over time, or how it is restored after years of exposure damage the paint? There’s an app for that. Really, there is. In the museum, there is an iPad set up with my beloved Bedroom in Arles, and on multiple touch points I could be enlightened about restoration work, letters about the painting between Van Gogh and his brother, and see the Yellow House in Arles in which the bedroom lay. The app is available for free in the App store; just search for Touch Van Gogh (there is also an android version for the rebels out there).
I suppose I could learn all of this by reading the beautiful coffee table book on Van Gogh that I have in storage, but it isn’t the same. There’s a magic to playing with these interactive exhibits and then walking out into Museumplein to catch the tram home down Marnixstraat, with the canal at your side. If you can catch a glimpse of a windmill in the distance you can imagine the reapers who may have worked beneath it. It’s part of the magic of the place, and brings with it the magic of the person who created the art. And that, my friends, is worth the $39.9 million, but costs a whole lot less.