"If you want to write a song about a face/Think about a photograph that you really can't remember but you can't erase/Wash your hands in dreams and lightning/Cut off your hair and whatever is frightening"
-the ever erudite Paul Simon
If you could really take a taste of Minnesota Tomas German guessed that it would probably taste a little like an undercooked Asian waffle. German regularly offered that type of insight to his friends, his colleagues, his co-workers and anyone else who cared enough to try and decipher his mumble, most of whom tended not to stick around very long. He recently noticed a trend of people asking him a question and then leaving the room before he could offer up an answer. Thus it was and was not unusual that on a sweltering July day Tomas found himself alone sweaty (more from the intensity than the heat) with a thought, a question that was preoccupying his mind and just wouldn't leave him alone: what is art?
The germination of the question had been planted months before while he was on the phone talking to an amateur gardener who had once mattered a great deal, who he had lost contact with over the years even though she was the face that he to this day looked for in every crowd he faced. Towards the end of their unexpected phone conversation he asked her what music she was currently listening to because years back when they spent a brief moment of time together it was music that sealed their friendship. "Nothing in particular," she now said. "Music isn't all consuming the way it used to be." Her words took a while to sink in but somehow their meaning made German very very sad. Upon lingering reflection he wondered if he felt sad because it made him feel that somehow he hadn't changed as much as he thought he had since the day when the timing belt broke and everything seemed to go askew and her knees shook all the way home when they had accidentally run into each other without a word spoken? Or was he sad because he sensed his so called soul mate had changed significantly?
The sting of a bite of red pepper snapped him into the current moment as he found himself sharing a Pad Thai lunch order with the office intern (reflexive BJ snicker), Tina, a senior at Duke University, who sat in the cubicle next to his own. Tomas had already enjoyed the recent conversations shared with Tina, things two people assigned to work next to each other for a brief while might talk about: things that happened after work the night before; things that were hopefully going to happen after work that evening; an occasional thought, a glimpse, an insight, an interpretation of their lives' paths that had somehow managed to cross each other this particular summer.
Tina had just finished re-reading his favorite book, the lyrical story of a man trapped by his past and unable (or at least unwilling) to accept his present as he desperately tried to shape his own future- F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Tomas appreciated the fact that the story that had come to mean more and more over the years in his own life and the beauty of the writer's language and emotional expression was having a similar impact on Tina. After they finished their lunch they both worked quietly at their computers digesting it all, thoughts somewhere both far and near. She left for home to make a mussel-less paella before he was able to ask her opinion of the question that the more he thought about the less he thought he really knew an adequate answer to.
No matter German actually had some rare plans for the evening going to a movie with one of his favorite newspaper reporters, Joy Deific, a friend who had been of particular importance during a time of a life changing moment that had happened nearly three years to the day. The two had planned on seeing the movie the critics were raving about, a collaboration between Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, Minority Report, about the future where mere thoughts (feelings?) could get you arrested. The two waited for Joy's brother to show up at her house but he was late. They decided to go without him and she sped away in a red Triumph with a determination not to miss the previews. About half way to the theater he felt her hit the brakes and looked up ahead to see a cop at the side of the highway (no less monitoring their thoughts). He asked the driver how fast she was going. 83 in a 55. The cop took no action.
Image wise the movie was another that struck Tomas as something that might be considered art although the story seemed to have a hole or two. He thought about recent movies that had cut through his own personal clutter and had impressed him as much as they had changed his own way of thinking: Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky, and The Princess and the Warrior. All three had complicated swirling nonlinear stories with ambiguous meanings pulsated forward by the vision of a director with something that seemingly needed to be said, the message of which was more intuitive than perceived where the characters ended up questioning their own identities and realities and beliefs. Perhaps art was the space between imagination and memory, the difference between a thought and a feeling.
It was these types of movies that now made the most sense to Tomas. Maybe it was a pretentious distraction of a convoluted narrative but it was as if day to day life was now making too much sense and he realized that the whiskey soaked demons still existed only they were just being bored to death. Over the years he had learned the lesson something that probably was apparent to everyone else about life in a nutshell (me shell): that once life is gone it means the same thing as dying.
He had tried to convey the message to his young lover CB Jones when she told him she was thinking of selling her soul to the devil for revenge and that she was starting to lose belief in God. She loaned German her window air conditioner as they watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy is stung by a demon and ends up oscillating between the world she has always perceived- that of demons and vampires and HUGE responsibilities- and a world where she is in a mental institution with her parents trying to convince her all that she has come to believe is a delusional fantasy. The episode scared Tomas, like great art might, into remembering a similar situation in his own past and he couldn't unwind.
He once worked in a record store had recently rediscovered his love of playing the piano: insomnia battled with a plunked out midnight tune, not meant for human ears but meant to somehow reconnect with the piano player's own heart. His own rather large collection of CDs lately had grown by five or six as some of his favorite artists(?) had come out with new work (but who knew or cared?). Yet none of the music mattered, none of it sunk in. Fighting the tide, the all too near but should be somewhat over by now gnawing reminiscence in his brain (or was that his heart?- it was his own personal theory that unlike others he was hooked up so that his brain was responsible for feelings and his heart controlled the thought aspect of things thus a sudden lack of spontaneity in his life- he needed something dependable and familiar) he remembered far back to his final months in high school when he would day after day get ready by listening to John Lennon's first post-Beatle album whose penultimate moment was a rejection of all that had come before. "The dream is over and what can I say?" It was an intimate declaration from an artist(?) that German could and could not relate to- from the deathly pale apple green album cover to the stark songwriting to the primal scream laced yet delicate singing- it was the most personal music the listener had ever heard- and that was what made it such a great piece of art.
He was reminded of Lennon's album while trying to work up a similar ear for Lauryn Hill's second CD, Unplugged 2.0- a similarly personal testament from an artist(?) trying to distance herself from her past while suffering from the benefits of the success brought on by who she once was. The former Fugee's first solo CD was a wondrous mixture of hip-hop, R&B, folk and blues. The follow up effort was the singer alone with her guitar singing about how hurt and betrayed she felt by those that expected something, that thought they knew something by who she was before.
Was this art or was it just a few pages that more properly belonged in some spiral bound notebook serving as a journal- a place to vent as much as express (and not share?). The music was difficult and angry and uncomfortable but above it all immensely (and admirably) personal. If one thought they cared about the creator of the music, if one thought they cared about what was once previously shared couldn't one at least try to care that this was where the artist(?) is currently at and that the straightforward songs themselves were probably as significant (if not as accessible) as anything that particular writer has ever attempted to do? Or was it more arty to be ambiguous like the Nashville group Lambchop whose recently released CD, Is a Woman contained dense and jarring lyrics that didn't seem to make any literal sense but still managed to convey a deep emotion. "The last thought that you think today/has already happened/the link between profound and pain/covers you like Sherwin Williams."
It was that last line that got to Tomas and wouldn't leave him alone. He went out and commissioned yet another painting from his favorite local painter, Deanna Renelt who had already painted several pieces based on photographs of the last woman to break Tomas' heart. At the same time he looked at the most famous room in his house, his pink bathroom that accurately suggested he had bought his house from an elderly woman, and decided it was time to repaint despite the conversations the previous hue had inspired. German called his recently out of work writer friend, the green belt Tae Kwon Do kicker Lisa Hilton who spent all of one day diligently turning the room into something he could live with. After she left he stood in the middle of the tiled room and noticed the different mood that the fresh coat of paint invoked, a similar feeling to the commissioned paintings.
One thing he never meant to do (and asked those around him to kill him if he ever did do) was to deliberately repeat himself. He wanted (almost desperately so it turned out) to keep moving forward, keep on keeping on as it were. For the most part Tomas was successful in that goal- he had come so remarkably far from the time he had run across the seamstress he had run across in Australia who he had unmercifully criticized for taking a leak when they pulled off to the side of the road (his German sensibility just got the better of him just about the time they were both leaving) to the time he had become a proud homeowner- a proud professional dream chaser downer. A decade before when he was far past throwing in the towel he looked at those who thought they knew him well (and probably did more than they ever knew) and they looked back with a not knowing quite what to do, what quite to make of him, what quite to say, look in their reflective eyes. Having just escaped a diagnosis of needing electro-shock therapy to right himself (or at the very least- least indeed- to live in some group home type situation where he could be properly if not medicinally monitored) he decided if everyone thought he was a tad unstable the least he could do (and never let it be said he didn't do the least he could do) he would f%*k with their minds and do something they would wonder about, shave his noggin; normal people didn't after all, just go out and cut off all their hair in one moment. He was glad he did. He later met a voice on the phone who had suffered a head trauma and had righted herself by cutting all her possessions to pieces right before she walked away from him on a gray day because of his racial face. With his (somewhat) new look, he thought he looked good, that if nothing else his head was shaped right even if it were to never again quite feel right, and that in the hot weather things would seem a bit cooler. Practicality he said. "What's that about?" somebody dressed as Liz muttered.
Now nearly a decade later the German Tomas decided he again needed some sort of change to mix things up in a mixed up state of mind (and world). He could change his glasses (but it wasn't exactly "that type" of vision problem) or he could do something more radical. This time would be different Tomas said to himself noting that at the very least he was living in a different place and that too the seamstress was mostly a fictional memory (a far off, long distance voice that seemed as far away and near as the space between Duluth, MN and the Twin Cities). So he once again shaved off his hair in lieu of Botox treatments not so much as a "hope they notice this is an artistic statement" type of action but more of a self-necessary nothing too think about change of pace. If there was something wrong they could always just ask.
Art is inspiration.