Montreal, I thought you were made of tougher stuff. 2.5 feet of snow overnight and they cancel life. I mean, you can't get around, and I sank up to my pantyhosed knees when I walked out the alley door. But isn't that what's supposed to happen? In Montreal? In winter? This is the only one I get!
It took four red-faced, short, burly Montreal guys to shovel a VW Golf out of a parking spot. Then they all piled in wearing most of the snow. Cyclists ride their bikes through powder toward the mountain, cross-country skis strapped to their back. Parents pull their offspring to daycare on sleds while the kids eat snowballs for breakfast. I'll try dog-sledding Plateau-style: I'll harness a plastic trash-can to Tibby and climb in. Sounds like something my dad would have done back in the day. I'll let you know how it goes. Back on the ranch, Alrik has dig-out cookies ready for whichever hero in a Caterpillar comes dig him out.
I find myself standing in the aisle of the grocery store. I'm holding 4 boxes of cookies and I just dropped two more, plus a box of Pop Tarts (frosted). I'm trying hard not to lose it. What am I doing? School is so intense, and time is going by so fast, and I'm getting so little of Montreal that this is how I internalize the experience: by eating my memories of being in Quebec.
I'm underwater in my Research Methods class. It was a two-day seminar held on two brain-dead Fridays. The presentation is due this week. When I open the analytics software, my mind makes itself into a very tiny, impermeable, tight seed. I tried to figure it out on my own, as I always do. I fell even further behind. So I did something different: I asked for help. The kind and supportive response from my fellow students brought me to my knees. So that's a lesson learned.
Also thrilling, the visit to Cirque du Soleil's HQ and our meeting with Daniel Lamarre. I hope he has 13 jobs for us. The circus, people. Run away with it if you don't know where your life is headed. It's the right thing to do for the past 150 years.
7 in the morning finds me sitting at Paquebot café’s bay window, facing the granite poem that is Mont Royal. Shrouded in fog or sparkling in the frosty light, it watches over the dogs romping in the park. Those little characters cross the street before my very eyes with no regard for how much I miss my Miss Tibby. Nor do the cyclists care that I had to ditch Maple Leaf the Bike in the US.
On Fridays, I pack my being into my snail shell and backpack to the wind-swept fields of the St Lawrence plain. My man and my dog are waiting for me there. The revised room in Montreal was too small to hold us all. After the reunion show-and-tell, we puppy pile onto the couch in front of the fireplace for a weekend of writing and research. Monday morning, I reenact the ritual of my foremothers’ generations. I trek into Montreal from a far-flung rural community to study. A room facing a brick wall is where I rest my head. It wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. And the neighborhood! If you’ve not heard of the Plateau, it’s a bilingual Brooklyn, with better croissants and cheaper coffee.
Montreal sings its ode, but I haven’t had time to dance to it. I’m knee deep in the preparation for my thesis, and I’m grant-writing for a food museum. I’ve had nightmares that I’ve been in Montreal without knowing it. It’s happening. Every minute of every day is scheduled—even Fun gets planned. How else to squeeze all the learning from this year of reflection and intellectual exploration?
Watching the fine snow lace the trees and blur the woods, I’d extend this moment forever if I could.
They said it couldn’t be done, but we did it: Dallas on a bike. Four months. In hellish heat, in freezing drizzle, Maple Leaf carried me. In flipflops, in heels, in Wellies, in a good mood, in a foul mood, pulling the dog’s carriage, hauling groceries, going out to dinner, going to the opera. Dallas is flat and flooded. The streets are wide. Drivers are so surprised to see us, they come to a dead stop. When I wave at them, they wave back. Only two tried to run me over. Clearly, Dallas needs us. Drop your gym membership and get on your bike.
With only a month between school semesters, I didn’t have enough time to ride Maple Leaf from TX to Montreal. I had to choose: bring Tibby on the plane with me, or Maple Leaf. I left Maple Leaf behind. We explored Chicago and NYC together. You were preceded by Hot Pepper, Rinkydink, and Salmonella. Your chain fell off once a month. You had just three flats in 8 years. Your higher gears either never worked, or were the only ones that did, which was loads of fun going up the Harlem Hill and the Bronx hills. Maple Leaf was a therapy bike: pulling over next to nervous dogs to pet them helped them get over their fear of bikes (looking at you, Jackie the New Yorkie). I’ve not had a home, but I’ve never not had a bike. My wings are clipped. Farewell, Maple Leaf.
So after the 109 degree heat through most of September, which wasn’t supposed to be that warm, the monsoons came. We weren’t supposed to get 28 inches. Manholes burbled mud. Kids’ Halloween costumes turned to paste in the knee-deep puddles. When the rains left, it was 48 degrees, and me with nothing warmer than fishnet stockings because it wasn’t supposed to be that cold. Back in NY, I had wished for the wettest year on record in Dallas, thinking that would break the heat. Next time, I’ll wish for the dismantling of the NRA.
Some people in Dallas have so much money, they swap it. They donate to one another’s causes. They believe in culture, but not on their front lawns. Not a soul stirs in the residential streets. Keep that drumming, those festivals, those crafty markets in Deep Ellum, in Bishop Arts, gentrified for that purpose. On our street: order. We drive to Art on Saturday night. We greet one another and promise a dinner date. We won’t keep it because we’ll see one another at the next fundraising gala, over dinner. And every now and then, we run for president.
A philanthropist shows me around her public-art collection. A curator gives us a private tour of a sculpture collection. I drive 5 hours to see one of the US’s newest museums in Arkansas. I nearly jump in the arms of my long-time friend at the Getty Center whom I haven’t seen in two years and who gives me the low-down on a couple of exhibits. I call an arts consultant on the East Coast and he readily accepts my help in writing a paper.
I am soaking in all that is beautiful about the human endeavor. Doors are opening, around me and inside my mind. I stand where my mother would have liked to stand—inside arts organizations, hearing people make decisions, take risks, bet on the future. We are talking about access, equity, artists’ rights, technology and the arts, what cities can do for culture, what cities can’t do, the UNESCO, how to handle art stolen by the Nazis that’s resurfacing, how to imagine a cultural center, how to show people a society in which art glues us back together.
This is why we lived in Europe when I was a child. This is why I moved to NYC five years ago. For one short year that’s already felt like three, I will stand at attention without repose or distractedness and grab any butterfly that drops a little powder off its wings. I will tell you about it until you’re bored, and I’ll be so into it that I won’t pick up on your social cues. I apologize in advance.
I’m here because of my partner, who said I couldn’t pass it up, and who said he wasn’t passing it up either. I’m here because of my mother, who passed on to me her sensitivity for any expression of humanness. I’m here because of my father, who made the tuition possible, and who believes in lifelong learning. I’m here because one sister wouldn’t stop pushing me to do it. I’m here because another sister has paved the way. I’m here because my roommate in Montreal offered me a place to call home. I’m here despite the deep concentration and isolation because my little Labrador, my sweet dark quiet shadow, keeps me sane.
This is what I’ve been giving thanks for this weekend. This is why I haven’t picked up your call. And shhhh, don’t tell anyone: I even found time to make a little art. There, could you do that over Christmas? I think not. I’m grateful for the silence in which my ideas are heard.
I saw my first temps-de-cuisse/sissonne since leaving NYC, last night at the Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet. Hey Martha, Debra Jo, I thought of you. I still haven’t taken the Steps NYC app off my phone. I won’t let go.
I sat in the dark, listening to the pianist play Philip Glass, Satie, Schumann, hearing the dancers’ labored breathing. Their silhouettes burned in my brain. This is my job now.
Art has been grabbing me lately. I’m no longer trying to put words to it. I let the heartstrings sing and the throat tighten and the tears well up. (But I tell people that my eyes are strained.)
I stared at photo portraits at Crystal Bridges—that precious gem of a museum suspended above the water in the Ozark woods, built by the Walton family on the back of the impoverishing small-town working class—and the gazes of the indigenous people generations ago halted me. For the directness of their expression. For the beauty of Will Wilson’s prints. For the nobility of the museum’s aim. For the disappearance of the rural middle class.
I breathe and dream this stuff now. Whether it’s the financing of theater, or why the museums are underfunded to start with, or who goes to art festivals, or artists’ legal rights, or the implications of Banksy’s shredded painting, or the policies related to the restitution of Nazi-appropriated works… friends are starting to understand what I’m doing here. It’s all fascinating, and I want more, and I wish it went longer than one year so that I had more time to soak it all in, and I need more people to talk about it with so we can come up with a point of view and an improvement.
Learning is a privilege, a responsibility and a humbling experience. Who knows this? I’ve been fortunate to work where people feel the same way. It can only happen if you let go of what you know, and you stop believing for a few minutes what you learned as an undergrad.
I wish I’d done this before I needed bifocals.
Ugh, anything but write my Policy of Arts & Culture homework. So this is why I’m writing to you. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading about how arts policy meshes with urban planning. We’re discussing the difficult side of the creative economy’s coin: gentrification and unequal access to employment. But as I mentioned before, my thoughts are random; they bubble from the depths in unpredictable ways. Now, for my Policy homework, I have to make it look like they came to me in rational, marching order, with a claim, a warrant, backing evidence, a rebuttal. I can’t do that to my brain! I mean, I can try, but at my age, I probably won’t get anywhere. Mostly, I’m learning the extent to which I’ve overestimated my ability to act half my age.
Just like that, on the equinox, we stepped through the portal. We left summer behind in the other room and it’s cool and drizzly. I didn’t think Big D had it in her. What a relief. As Angie would say, the heat, light, and energy level can be oppressive. The amount of stamina required of me was too intense. Now when the sun shines, it’s my friend. The sky is make-your-heart-sing blue. Riding my bike frees my amazon. I’m hanging out by the pool—the one with the infinity edge for a better view of the HVAC. The day takes a little time to rev up and wind down. Tibby likes it much better this way too. She’s once more a sweet wild swamp thing.
So let’s take stock of summer: a cracked phone, a broken camera, locked out of the apartment on moving day, and a sprained thumb. All trivial. Alrik’s still glamping with me. Our carpeted pre-fab is healing on some levels. We’re pretty deep in the park-like setting. I could get used to not smelling garbage juice. Nor do we hear cars, trucks, honking, or helicopters. No one is over the age of 37, including me (haha, just kidding… sigh).
I had an option on a birthday this month, but I passed. There comes a time when birthdays come around too damn often, like it’s another weekend or something, and you have to put a stop to it. I’m staying the same age for two years this time.
It’s too bad, because my cohort, we’re good at celebrating birthdays. We’re not particularly gifted, so we’re betting on our cuteness to get us through the program. We’ve celebrated all our teachers’ birthdays already. We have to keep it coming, thank goodness we have Xmas just after finals. And then next semester, we can do up the New Year’s thing to get to know our next bunch of profs. I’ll say this for my fellow students: they have the talent of getting their projects done so they can get on with their lives, unlike me. I belabor things. Not much has changed since grade school.
I caught up on my reading for, like, 5 minutes. So I treated myself to a movie. We went to see Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman. Alrik tried to have a conversation about it with the Uber driver on the way home. That went nowhere. He got shut down immediately. We were the only people in the movie theater. Does no one talk about stuff other than football and restaurants?
Speaking of Alrik. I told the man to go out and bring home some money. The man comes back with a job. Umm, that's not what I asked for. It might sound like the same thing, but it's not. Tibby has to stay home alone. He's not available to swim with me in the morning. We don't read together anymore. All I wanted was the pile of money. Not the extra responsibility--I've got that for both of us.
This program is getting real. We were invited by Dallas's Office of Cultural Affairs to attend the unveiling of the new cultural policy plan. Dallas's cultural pride & joy--the state-of-the arts performance venues in the Arts District--are also Dallas's ball & chain. The maintenance of these white elephants starves the artists, presenters, and small organizations in the neighborhoods. The current funding allocation privileges the old-guard, traditional arts consumer but does not encourage the creation of art in the communities, nor draw in new audiences.
Our class went to the activation meeting to witness and listen and learn. We weren't permitted to sit on the sidelines very long. Pretty soon, we were throwing down ideas and schemes. We're all artists to begin with, so our minds clicked away, the way they do. Besides, we had an untested three weeks of theory to exercise. The things my class came up with were fun, brilliant, and would make any city way more interesting and livable.
So, hire an artist to solve any and all of your problems! Big or small, we do it all.
I’m pushing hard on my bike pedals to get up this flat slope. There’s a head wind no matter my direction. My lung capacity is diving. Each coughing spasm leaves my legs weak. This twelve-day illness is perhaps asthma, perhaps pertussis. The air-con ducts spew mold that inflames my lungs. I’m on antibiotics and an inhaler. My sleep is broken up by coughing fits. I’m behind on my writing and reflection. I can’t participate in class for fear of ejecting pieces of lung. My brain won’t rise to the occasion. As they say, the wheel is true but the hamster’s dead.
And I’m still incredulous and furious that we’re spending summer and autumn in 98 degree, Where-is-everyone Texas. We’re missing the best that Montreal has to offer in municipal arts and inclusive culture. Montreal, where it’s 72 degrees and everyone is celebrating summer on the streets. We’ll get there in December, when these effervescent, joyous events are a long-ago memory and the town is bundled in yards of smelly wet wool scarves. When Dallas starts to come to life. Now that’s some backwards.
I found a silver lining to the Texas nonsense. After ten years of missed occasions, I finally get to see Corb Lund play live near Dallas in late August. I bought the tickets online in early June when I was still in New York. I miss the concert anyway. The antibiotics flatten me and I can’t leave my bed.
Alrik’s long-time friend comes to town to meet me and take us out to dinner. I can’t leave the bed that day either. I can’t wheeze through ballet class. I can’t hack in the dark at the movies. I can’t cough on the paintings in over-air-conditioned museums. I can’t choke on my dinner in restaurants. Dallas is off to a slow start.
If nothing else, I’m here for the coursework, which is everything I wished for and more. If I ever get there on this 150 pound bicycle with square wheels and flat tires.
I’m riding my bike a few flat miles in 96 degree heat before barging into refrigerated campus buildings. My lungs can’t take the sudden 20 degree difference. You know where this is going.
I’ve had a cold my first two weeks in Dallas. So I’ll do what I do best: I’ll sit this one out and observe.
Classes begin. They wash over us as implacably as the tides. As soon as I’ve regained my footing, the next one sends me tumbling, coughing, gasping for air. I never had good hair, so that hasn’t changed.
When I worked, I had some control over the rhythm of the stroke. No longer. The theoretical classes—“Microeconomics of the Arts Market” and “Cultural Policy”—are taught by the same person three days a week, so I can’t tell which way is up.
I got here thinking I knew in which direction I was pointed. Our five courses have jumbled that and blown everything open. I’m passionate about being an advocate for culture in immigrant communities; or showing artistic directors the harmony in numbers as a CPA; or being the best storyteller that fundraising has ever seen. I just don’t know anymore. Tracy warned me about that.
Despite my cold, I swim each day. So I get really sick. But in the pool is when ideas bubble up from not-me. I treasure those evanescent drops of air. They’ll get me through the next four months, given how far behind I’m falling.
All 13 of us, plus Alrik the honorary cohort member, are getting oriented in Dallas. We went to a ballet last night in the Arts District. Wild bunch that we are, we stayed out for a glass of wine afterwards. When we left the bar--crickets. Our voices rang against the empty performance buildings. Lincoln Center hasn't had that effect on Broadway. What's going on here?
The sun flattens SMU. When the bell rings, the Kens and Barbies climb back into their BMWs and Jeep Grand Cherokees to join the stream of machines heading to the suburbs. I've never seen such a listless campus. We don't quite know yet why we're here. Some of us have big voids to fill. Others, urgent dreams to fulfill.
I've unplugged from the necessity of a paycheck. I get just 380 days to make something happen. I have to trust that the logistics I've set up will carry me through--network, vaccinations, budget, bank accounts, storage, tax prep, stay permits. The structured discussions about arts and culture fascinate me as much as this past year's reading did. I've landed in the right place. What better thing could I be doing at this stage of my life?
Then, surprise-surprise. It takes 4 professors and 2 directors to jumble the journey I thought I was on. The prospects for the whole year changes. I listen, excited, disbelieving. I told you we would visit 4 cities in the next year. Insert three more. Brace yourself: I'm going to India and China. This is no longer a program. It's an adventure.
At my age, this is a once in a lifetime chance. I mobilize everything to honor this opportunity extended to me What about family, partner, dog? As my aunt said, "my job is to focus on me, and I've got big plans."
We got Tibby a quinceañera carriage to pull her behind our bikes all over Dallas. Hang in there baby, this year's going to be a bumpy ride.