Thursday, June 29, 2006


Birthdays are such strange things. When I was little, birthdays were a pretty big deal in my family. We had a special birthday cake that my mother would make for each of us once a year, chocolate cake with marshmallowy white frosting, the most amazing cake in the entire world, despite the cake itself coming out of a box. We would savor each and every slice, each and every bite. And my birthday, falling on the summer solstice, always seemed a little bit magical to me. The four of us would get up early, whether it was a weekday or not, and gather around the table in the big dining room, a glorified screened-in porch. And it was always near the end of the school year, those long summer vacations just around the corner, and it always seemed like the sun was shining in through all those windows in that room, filtered through green, making the room glow.

And the birthday parties that my parents threw for me! I was not exactly popular in elementary school, was in fact quite miserable quite a lot of the time. But all the girls wanted to come to my birthday parties. Only five or six were ever invited, you see, always limited to the number of little girls who could sprawl in the oversized, very old, slightly mildewed army tent that my father would set up every year just for the big day in our back yard. The girls would arrived in the afternoon and we would all go down to the lake to go swimming, and then we would come back to the house for a dinner of teriyaki chicken grilled out back, and a big fruit salad with strawberries and kiwis, and potato chips and that amazing birthday cake. And then, as it grew dark outside, the glow sticks would be passed around, the flashlight batteries checked, and we'd make our way out to the tent, sleeping bags and pillows in hand, for a night of ghost stories and make-believe. In the morning, bright and early, we'd wander in for pancakes or waffles with maple syrup and whipped cream and more strawberries, satisfied for another year with our night of excitement and adventure.

Then high school came along, and suddenly it wasn't popular to have your own birthday parties any more. Other people were supposed to plan little surprises, or take you out to the movies, or otherwise show their love and affection, or at least awareness, of you. And somehow, what with my birthday being always during finals, it sort of slipped under the radar, or was overshadowed by all of the end-of-year parties. At least one year I attended one of these parties on my actual birthday, and sort of kind of kept hoping that a cake with candles and my name would suddenly appear, or at least that everyone would spontaneously and inexplicably burst into a rendition of "happy birthday." It's amazing how easy it is to feel invisible, sometimes.

But this year my boy threw me a birthday party, and though I'm a little bit embarrassed by how much I've wanted someone to do this for me for years, I'm also pleased as punch, giddy as a schoolgirl, to have actually had a birthday party for the first time since seventh grade. To have someone care so much that they would plan such a lovely evening, and to be at a place in my life, a lucky and wonderful place, where I can feel surrounded by dear friends. And such friends, to not only brave the wilds of northern Manhattan, but to endure our excruciatingly overheated apartment for hours on end that night. And there was a birthday cake. Chocolate, with white frosting, with my name on it in red. There may have even been a bit of singing.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

girl with a pearl earring

Chris's parents, a few years ago, gave me a copy of Girl With a Pearl Earring. I, surrounded by my shelves and boxes and piles of books, never quite got around to reading it. But the other night we watched the film version of this book finally, and it was strange. It was like watching a moving breathing re-enactment of a still life, and not a movie in the traditional sense, with characters and plot developments or twists. The details were taken straight out of Vermeer's masterpieces, the brocade fabric and the way the light slants down through the windows and washes over a table, across a black and white tiled floor. Every scene is staged as if it could have been a Vermeer painting, even though really he only left behind about 35 paintings by the time he died. And the Girl is in almost every scene, a nearly silent observer, the still center of a still movie, moving between the saturated colors of helping her master with his paints and the billowy empty whitness of hanging the laundry to dry in the house's courtyard.

But there is little emotion in the movie, little sense of gravity to keep it from flying off into a beautiful and amazing and hollow embodiment of a painting. Nothing much happens, and the Girl's blank stare and open mouth, the awe and fear reflected in her huge wide eyes, can't carry the film forever. In the end, I felt both moved by and disappointed in the emptiness at the core of the movie. So I decided I'd read the book, and am now almost done with it. The book provides the Girl's inner world, the thoughts that fill in those long spaces between her words. Yet it cannot possibly capture in words the simple sensuality of grinding down lapis lazuli or burned and blackened ivory tusks into a powder and mixing it with linseed oil to create paint.

In the end, while neither the book nor the movie stands entirely on its own, they complement and complete each other in a lovely balance of lush, saturated visual images and distilled thoughts and speech.