Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Chance: Jeff Koons’ Show and the Whitney Museum



The hot art exhibit of the summer in New York— “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective”--is about to close on Sunday, Oct. 19, and that will also be the end of the Whitney Museum as we know it. The Whitney will move into its new building in the meatpacking district and leave the iconic Breuer-designed building at Madison and 75th to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to use as a satellite space starting in the spring of 2016.
I’d already seen Jeff Koons’ gigantic, flower-covered “Split Rocker” at Rockefeller Center.  I even knew that the four-story-high structure was meant to represent a toy that had half the head of a rocking horse and half the head of a dinosaur. But I hadn’t been able to make it to Koons’ show at the Whitney until September 10th, when I finally saw it with some friends who had come all the way from Minnesota. 
I was familiar with Koons’ art— I’d written, at the time of Michael Jackson’s death, about Koons’ sculpture of Michael with his chimpanzee Bubbles, which sold for  $5.6 million in 2001 but would sell for much more after the death.
I saw one of Koons’ balloon dogs on the roof of the Met some years ago. (It’s made out of stainless steel, but it looks so much like a balloon that you really, really want to touch it to make sure.)  Last year the orange-tinted balloon dog sold for more than $58 million dollars, making it the highest price ever for a living artist.
And Jeff Koons, fifty nine, is really living.  I was aware that one room in the show was devoted to “Made in Heaven”-- giant-sized paintings of Koons having sex with his ex-wife, the Hungarian-Italian porn star Ilona Staller, known as “La Cicciolina”, who, when their brief marriage was over, took their son Ludwig back to Italy, where she has also served as a member of Parliament.  A long and painful custody trial ensued and Koons’ bitterness at losing his son is often echoed in his art (or is it just a longing for Koons own boyhood?)  Looking at his art, you realize the man, like Peter Pan, never grew up.
The review of the Whitney show in the New Yorker rightly called Koons “The most original, controversial, and expensive American artist of the past three and a half decades.”
There are plenty of critics who hate Koons’ work, and a lot of their comments are apt, funny and understandable. But I was won over by the humor and whimsy of his latest sculptures and paintings, which seem to have a spirit of fun and fantasy while at the same time mocking the kitsch and the commercialism of the things that he is parodying.  
The best thing about seeing Koons’ exhibit at the Whitney—for me anyway—was watching the visitors (and even the guards) interacting with the art.

Koons’ newest, and I think funniest, piece of sculpture is the gigantic “Play-Doh” which The New York Times critic  Roberta Smith  called “a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop.” 
This pile of Play-Doh is dated 1994-2014.  He worked on it for 20 years! Mr. Koons, says the NYT critic, “spends much money and often ends up inventing new techniques to get exactly what he wants in both his sculptures and his paintings, which are made by scores of highly skilled artists whom he closely supervises.”
This is "Hulk (Organ) 2004-2014" and the organ really works
 
It was recently announced that, because the Koons retrospective at the Whitney is so popular—more than 250,000 people have seen it, making it among the highest attended shows in the museum’s history—that the director of the Whitney has decided to stage a 36-hour marathon, keeping the Whitney open from 11 a.m. Saturday, October 18 through 11 pm. Sunday Oct. 19. 
"Dog Pool (Panties) 2003
If you’re anywhere near Manhattan, I suggest you go to the Whitney marathon and buy a copy of the catalog.  There will be special activities, the bookstore and restaurant will stay open all night and, according to The Times, the director  "confided that Mr. Koons may make an appearance in the dead of night and be on hand to sign catalogs.”  (Maybe someday his signed catalogs will go for big money like his art!)

But if you can’t make it to the marathon, here are some scenes of what you missed—New Yorkers and art lovers interacting with and trying to figure out Jeff Koons’ very expensive art.


"Balloon Venus"


Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Columbus Really Greek?


 "Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella"

I realize I may sound like Gus, the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who chauvinistically insists that everything originally came from Greece and Greek culture, but a number of historians do believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but came from the Greek island of Chios, specifically the mastic-growing village of Pirgi.   (Only on Chios will you find the mastic tree, which produces a resin that has made the people rich since the 14th century. ) 

"Santa Maria--Flag Ship of Columbus"
 
When I visited Pirgi on the island of Chios, I learned that many families  there still have the last name "Columbus".   All the buildings in Pirgi, even churches and banks, are decorated with a unique kind of geometric patterns made by scraping away the top lawyer of white plaster to reveal the darker color beneath.
 This decoration is called  ksista (“scraped” in Greek) or, in Italian, scrafitti. It is believed to have originated in Genoa and spread to Chios when the island was under Genovese rule—from 1346-1566-- but it’s still done today in Pirgi.
 

"The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador October 12th 1492"

Here are some of the reasons that historians like Ruth G. Durlacher-Wolper, who wrote "Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine Prince from Chios, Greece", believe that the discoverer of the Americas was a Greek from Chios.
 
"Triumphal Procession at Barcelonna in Honor of Columbus"
 
--He was said to come from Genoa, but the island of Chios was under Genovese rule from 1346 to1566, so it was part of the Republic of Genoa during Columbus's time.
 
--Columbus kept his journals in Latin and Greek--not Italian, which he didn't even speak well.
 
--He signed his named "Christopher" with the Greek letter X .
 
--He made notes in Greek in the margins of his favorite book--Imago Mundi, by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly.
 
--He referred to himself as "Columbus of the Red Earth" and also wrote about mastic gum. Chios is noted for its red soil in the south of the island, which is the only place where mastic grows. 

--The name "Columbus" is carved over many doors in the villages of Pirgi  and a priest with that name traces his family on the island back more than 600 years.

Whatever the truth may be about Columbus's origins, I wanted to illustrate this Columbus Day blogpost with some of the many scenes on a bed coverlet that I have hanging on a wall  near my computer.  It was sewn in redwork (also called "turkeywork") by a woman with the initials "E M" in 1892 to celebrate the tetracentennial of Columbus's landing. Whenever I look at it, I wonder at the many hours it must have taken her to complete this tribute.
                                 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

No, I Don’t Want to Die at 75!

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I imagine by now you’ve heard about the kerfuffle over the article in the October  Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75”.

Ezekiel Emanuel is a very distinguished scientist.  He is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.  He was a primary architect of Obamacare.  And he is 57 years old.

Needless to say, his 5,000-word piece evoked a lot of debate, although everyone agreed he makes some important and startling points.  They are his reasons for saying that he hopes to die at 75 and that after he turns 65, he plans to discontinue all his health care—no flu shots, colonoscopies, surgery, pacemakers or heart bypasses. No cancer treatments or antibiotics.  He quotes  Sir William Osler, who said in a classic turn-of-the-century medical textbook, “Pneumonia may well be called the friend of the aged,”  because it kills you quickly and relatively painlessly.

Emanuel cites, scornfully, what he calls the “American immortal”, who is “obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.” He thinks this “manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive.”

He also includes a graph to show that creativity “peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline.”   He writes, “The fact is that by age 75, creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

Furthermore, “A third of people 85 and older  [have] Alzheimer’s.”

Selfish people who insist on living beyond 75 are burdening their children with the “wrong kind of memories.”  [If we live too long] “We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

Mr. Emanuel points out that more than half of us oldsters have functional limitations. (The test of whether you’re functioning properly is this: you can walk a quarter of a mile, climb 10 stairs, stand or sit for two hours; and stand up, bend, or kneel without using special equipment.)

He points out that his own father, now in his eighties, had a heart attack and bypass “just shy of his 77th birthday” and has been slowing down ever since. “Today he can swim, read the newspaper, needle his kids on the phone and still live with my mother in their own house, But everything seems sluggish….no one would say he is living a vibrant life.”

Well, Mr Emanuel, I’m about to turn 74, and I want to tell you that I do not hope to die at 75.  I submit that my quality of life in my late sixties and early seventies is better than at any previous time in my life.  During high school I was miserable.  In college and grad school I was exhausted, overworked and sleep-deprived.  During my thirties and forties I was juggling pregnancies, raising three kids, trying to make a career in journalism, housekeeping—the usual multitasking monster.

Today, every morning, I get up, get myself a cup of coffee and as I settle in to read three newspapers, I breathe a silent prayer of thanks that I don’t have to get up at six a.m., prepare lunches, don office-worthy clothes, push into an over-crowded subway and arrive at the office at 8 a.m.

Here are some of the things I’ve done since turning 65 (most of them since turning 70):

--I went back to my original love, painting, signed up for classes at the local museum, have exhibited and sold art in several shows, and decorated three restaurants with my paintings or photographs.

--I started a blog, “A Rolling Crone” and have written 390 posts in the past six years.

--I’ve traveled to India for a three-day Hindu wedding, visited the Taj Mahal and, in Varanasi, drifted at dawn in a small boat on the Ganges, watching the laughing yogis doing their morning exercises and the cremation ghats burning bodies on shore.

---I’ve visited the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoachan, Mexico, where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter clustered in the fir trees. This involved climbing a mountainside at such high altitude that I had to stop every 20 yards or so to get my breath, but it was well worth it.

---I’ve visited a beach in Nicaragua at night, lantern in hand, watching hundreds of sea turtle babies emerge from the sand, and helped them in their journey toward the ocean, where they would swim to Africa, then return to this beach one day to lay their eggs.

--and I’ve celebrated Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico (twice)

--In 2009 I participated in my 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota, helped gather everyone’s biography for the Reunion Book,  and since then have explored Manhattan with high-school friends during several “mini-reunions”—most recently three weeks ago when we walked north from the bottom of Central Park, stopped for lunch by the boat pond, then visited exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art , and wound up eating dinner in the Great Hall Balcony Bar accompanied by live classical music.

---The most life-enhancing thing I’ve done in my 70’s is to meet my newborn first grandchild in August of 2011.  Since then, I’ve traveled with her and her parents to Nicaragua, Greece, Miami and Manhattan, watching her grow into her own person and sharing with her the places, songs, games and books I loved 70 years ago , when I was her age. (As every grandparent knows, rearing your own kids is wonderful, but you never have time or energy to watch and wonder at their development; you’re just too tired and worried about doing things right.  That’s why being a grandparent is so much more fun.)

My mother died at the age of 74 of cardiomyopathy after a long, slow decline to the point where she was too weak to open the door to her bedroom and weighed about 85 pounds.  But she didn’t want to die at that time.

My father died at 80 after about six years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and dementia—perhaps Alzheimer’s.  He spent the last year or two unable to communicate, curled in a fetal position.   That’s why I say that-- if and when I’m diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-- I intend to investigate and schedule an illegal physician-assisted death.

(Mr. Emanuel writes, “Since the 1990s I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”),

But for the moment, as I prepare for my 74th birthday, I still take Pilates classes, wear my “Fitbit” to measure my daily activity, and manage to rack up more than 10,000 steps a day.  I still can sprawl on the floor to play with my granddaughter or lift her into her stroller. I still can drive the 180 miles between our Massachusetts farmhouse and her Manhattan apartment, while listening to CDs in an effort to learn Spanish—which she speaks to her other grandma.  I can still do the crossword in the Times or read a menu without wearing glasses.

But I‘ll probably need them 18 years from now, Mr. Emanuel, when I’m scanning The New York Times for your obituary.





Friday, October 3, 2014

The Man Who Created the Smiley Face--The Harvey Ball Story

Because today (Oct. 3, 2014) is the 15th annual World Smile Day, I'm posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist from Worcester, MA who created the original Smiley Face fifty years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation.  Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey created World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  So World Smile Day is the day to do a random act of kindness--improving the world "one smile at a time."


When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny.  Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling.  But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life.  As he told  People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”

Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons.  When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger.  They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.

Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45.   When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.  By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.

But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids.  Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.)  When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.

Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone.  In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries.  When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug:  “I  don’t care if he designed the Smiley face.  We promote, we own, we market.” 

Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it,  Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  And he trademarked it. Harvey said, World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet.  No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in.  World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile.  Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."

Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich?  To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.  I’m not ticked off about it.  I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset.  I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”

Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.   He said  “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is.  It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester.  The city should make more of it.  Because no other city has this.”

After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets.  His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."

And he left us the legacy of a smile.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins



Inspired by a current exhibit at the Worcester Art Museum called "Perfectly Strange", which features Diane Arbus's famous photograph of "Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ 1967", I am re-posting an essay I wrote four years ago which has become one of the most popular on "A Rolling Crone".  (A list of other essays about historic photos is at right.)  It will be one of the chapters in my forthcoming book  about antique photographs, tentatively titled "Unlocking the Secrets of Our Earliest Photographs." 

Long before she killed herself in 1971 at the age of 48, (pills, slashed wrists, found in the bathtub two days later), the photographer Diane Arbus told a friend she was afraid that she would be remembered simply as “the photographer of freaks.”

Today that’s exactly how she is remembered for her searing, macabre photographs of “deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transvestites, nudists, circus performers) or else of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal,” as one biographer described her favorite subjects.

But one of her most famous photographs (on the left above) is not of circus freaks or mentally challenged people, but of identical twin girls taken in Roselle, N.J. in 1967.

This eerie photograph of young sisters Cathleen and Colleen Wade has been copied and echoed many times—including in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘”The Shining” with its twin girl ghosts. In fact there’s a TV commercial on right now (for kitchen appliances) with a pair of similar sinister girls.

A print of Arbus’s twins was sold at auction for $478,000 in 2004 and a couple of months ago I saw another one at the AIPAD photography show in New York that was priced at around $275,000 for a tiny print with Arbus’s notes on the back.

Let’s face it, there’s something intrinsically spooky about twins—especially identical twins—because it’s shocking to see the same individual, the same face, doubled and standing side by side. Maybe that’s why I (and many other collectors) love to find vintage photographic images of twins. They always seem to look like something out of Stephen King.

The 1/6 plate daguerreotype, #1, that I have above next to the Arbus twins, is my favorite dag ever. In my opinion it’s just as good – if not better -- than the Arbus image. The two little girls, who were photographed in the 1840’s or 1850’s, look amazingly like the twins from New Jersey. Compare the faces of the girls on the left in each photo.

The stern young ladies in image #1 are each holding a daguerreotype case inlaid with mother of pearl, and they wear identical gold-tinted pendents and dresses.

(In vintage photos it’s very common for siblings—not just twins -- to be dressed alike, because Mom would buy a long length of fabric and then the dressmaker would come around to stitch up clothing for all the kids from the same bolt of cloth.)

These are some of my prize twin images—all of them spooky. In the early days of photography, people were not only intimidated by this modern invention, they were warned not to move—certainly not to smile—because it would blur the image. Children were often strapped into a chair with their heads in a brace. No wonder they often look terrified!

(Click on the photos to make them bigger.)


Images 1 , 2, 3, 4 and 5 above are all daguerreotypes—the very earliest photographic process. Don’t you love the dour sisters in the checkerboard dresses in #3 (not a flattering pattern!) and next to them the long-faced girls in plaid. The sisters in image 5 I suspect, because of their somber clothing and jewelry, may be in mourning.


The girls holding books in image 6 are not identical, but the men in image 7 are mirror images of each other. I love how their top-knots curl in opposite directions. (Six and 7 are ambrotypes—negative images on glass—popular from 1854 to 1865.) People were always worried about how to pose their hands in these early days, and the photographer would arrange hands awkwardly like the ones you see here.


The two women in image 9 may not be twins, or even sisters, but I cherish them because they are feminists from the mid-1800’s! Written in the case behind their daguerreotype is this: “Mary, you and my self are still left single/ while others are double and full of trouble. Your KPL”





Photos 11 to 14 are tintypes, which became popular during the Civil War and continued into the 1900’s. The girls in 11 and the boys in 12 have high button shoes, and the ladies in #14, in ruffled skirts, are posed in a photographer’s studio. Check out the bathing beauties in #13, on a holiday at the seashore (but posed in front of a painted canvas background.)


The toddlers in # 15 are boy/girl twins. (Boys wore dresses until after age 5.) Their mother has written on the back of the cabinet card “Twins. Left, Louise Bertha Inez Forte. Right Louis Bertrand Forte. Born June 13th, 1893 at 2 p.m. in West Newton. Louis was born 5 minutes after Louise.”

An equally helpful relative noted the names of the young flappers in image #16, who look very chic in their cloche hats, as “Alice Antoinette Howland and Harriet Alma Howland, 1926.” Their relaxed pose in their fur-collared coats makes for a beautiful portrait, but none of the twins can compare to my ghostly, sour-faced girls from 170 years ago in image #1.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nicaragua--The Next Hot Spot for Travelers?

          All the travel magazines seem to be celebrating Nicaragua this year as the new, must-see destination for travelers, pointing out that it's safe, stunningly beautiful and an incredible bargain.  Condé Nast Traveler just labelled it "a paradise poised for discovery".
           Nicaragua is also the setting for daughter Eleni Gage's next novel,  tentatively titled "The Ladies of Managua", which will be published in 2015 by St. Martin's Press.  It's about three generations of Nicaraguan women who reunite at a funeral and are forced to confront their complicated relationships to each other and to their country with its tumultuous history and vibrant present.  As someone said about the book, "Think 'Gone with the Wind' but in Nicaragua."
         To give a glimpse into the beautiful country that is the background for "The Ladies of Managua", I'm reprinting a post I wrote in 2013, describing the daily routine of daughter Eleni, granddaughter Amalia and their family during the six months they lived in the charming colonial city of Granada. If you're considering adding the country to your bucket list, you might also enjoy "Birthing Turtles in Nicaragua" and "Turtle (and Bird and Monkey) Watching in Nicaragua", which I posted in 2011.
Since October, granddaughter Amalía and her Mommy and Papi have been living in the quaint, quiet, colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, with occasional trips back to swinging South Beach, Miami.
 Granada, with its horse-drawn carriages, almost weekly religious festivals and handicraft markets is very different from the wacky modern vibe of South Beach, but Amalía’s day is still just as busy in Nicaragua as in Florida.
                                Photo taken during the Poetry Festival by Eleni Gage de Baltodano
 Amalía wakes up demanding to eat huevos and gallo pinto—the national dish of Nicaragua, 
made of beans and rice.  ( “Gallo Pinto” literally means “spotted rooster”.)
 Then everyone goes out to have fruit and yogurt and coffee by the swimming pool. 
 
 But Amalía can’t tarry; she has to go find the tortugas, 
which are always hiding somewhere in the garden.  
 
 She likes to feed them leaves but sometimes they run away (very slowly). 
 Then she has to check on Tonia, the parrot, who comes out of her cage in the morning 
to eat sunflower seeds and wake everyone up with her shrieks. 
 After breakfast, Amalía and her Mommy may walk to the center of town 
to have juice and sweets with friends.
 And do a little shopping.
 Everyone knows Amalía and says “Buenos dias.” 

 Or Mommy and Amalía might take a taxi to the market at Masaya, to buy handicrafts.
                                 A mural at Masaya Craft Market, 14 kilometers from Granada
 hammocks, handmade masks and textiles.
Then it's time for a nap.
  After lunch Amalía likes to play in the pool with Papou, when he’s visiting,

Or with her two grandmas:   Yiayia Joanie and Abuela Carmen.

Or she might go out with her babysitter Maria José—
maybe to the lakeside where she can see parrots and monkeys,
                                                         
large water birds
                                       
 and one of Nicaragua’s famous volcanoes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Invisible (Old) Woman

  A couple of days ago, my husband and I were staying in an antique-filled small hotel in Chania, Crete, which had, in the parlor, a wall of books in many languages discarded by previous guests.  (This is one of the delights of staying in small hotels.)

I picked up a paperback by Doris Lessing called “The Summer Before the Dark”, published in 1973, and I finished it as we arrived in Athens on Sunday night.

Briefly, it’s the story of a 48-year-old British housewife and mother, Catherine (or Kate) Brown, married to a doctor, who takes a summer off from domestic life, because her husband is at a medical conference in Boston and her three teen-aged children are traveling with friends in different countries.  She lets their house for the summer and begins working at a job as a translator at conferences around the world.  (Luckily, she’s fluent in four languages.)

When her well-paying work is over, Kate takes an American lover who is much younger—in his early 20’s.  They travel in Spain, he becomes very ill from some never-specified disease, then she becomes ill and returns to London alone, staying anonymously in a hotel. 

By the time she’s well enough to get out of bed, Kate has lost 15 pounds, her clothes hang on her, her dyed red hair is coming out gray at the roots and her face has aged dramatically.  As she weakly walks around London, even passing her own house, where her best friend doesn’t recognize her, Kate realizes that, by suddenly aging from an attractive, stylish, curvy redhead into a skeletal old hag in baggy clothes, she has become invisible.

Several times she plays this game: she walks past a group of men who ignore her or goes into a restaurant where the waiters scorn her, then she goes back to the hotel, puts on a stylish dress and ties her hair back, adds lipstick and returns to the same places, where she is coddled and admired.

I admit that it’s plausible for a 48-year-old woman to transform herself at will from an invisible hag into a noticed and admired woman, but when you’re sixty, or seventy (as I am) you’re permanently in the “invisible” category, unless you’re, say, Joan Collins or Jane Fonda.

I’ve been noticing this “invisible woman” phenomenon with both amusement and consternation over the years.  Haven’t you had the experience of walking into a coffee shop or a department store or a cocktail party where everyone looks right through you and you start searching for a mirror to make sure you’re actually visible?

Yesterday we checked into the Grande Bretagne Hotel in Athens, one of the grand old luxury hotels of the world.  We arrived a bit out of breath because there was a taxi strike and we came via subway, dragging our suitcases up stairwells when there was no escalator.

My husband walked in first and I was greeted on all sides: “Welcome back Mrs. Gage!”  My suitcases disappeared. Cold water was provided.

A couple of hours later, I came down to the lobby to ask a question at the concierge desk.  There were three concierges and no other guests waiting.  The white-haired concierge was on the phone confirming someone’s dinner reservations.  The middle one was explaining to the youngest one about the book where must be recorded all cars and busses and pick-up times. I learned a lot about the hotel business, standing there 18 inches in front of them, until finally one of them noticed me and said “Oh hi!  How can I help you?”

A more fraught episode occurred Saturday in Crete at the magnificent wedding reception of a very prominent Cretan family.  Nick and I passed through security and into the estate, up some stairs where we were greeted by waiters with glasses of champagne and a world-class view of the sea below.  Lit by the full moon was a football-field- sized clearing by the seaside, filled with flower-laden tables and lighted by candles and lanterns. I stopped to admire the view, then turned toward the swimming pool area where the family was greeting guests, but my husband had vanished into thin air.

For half an hour I walked around the pool area, even wandering into the nearby yard where I thought Nick might have gone to escape the crush.  As I circled, I kept looking for a familiar face, but the only ones I recognized were from TV and the newspapers. The predominant languages were French and Greek, which I know (far better Greek than French), but I couldn’t imagine plunging into one of the groups surrounding a prime minister and blurting out in any language: “Hi, I’m the wife of Nicholas Gage”.

At the far end of the swimming pool, on a white banquette, was a young woman in a long brown dress completely absorbed in her cell phone.  I decided to take the other banquette and watch the parade of Parisian fashions pass by. Unfortunately, I had left my phone at the hotel.

Eventually my husband re-appeared.  He had gone with friends to find the lists for our table seating. After we clambered down to the sea and found our table, I had no trouble talking to the Greek jewelry designer on my right and the elegant Frenchman across the table, but that first half hour of invisibility wasn’t fun.

But sometimes I delight in being invisible.  Yesterday, I repeated a summer ritual. I walked from Constitution Square down Hermou to a tourist shop just below the Cathedral on  Mitropouleas Street to  deliver another batch of my Greek Cat books for them to sell.  Then I went to a small restaurant called “Ithaki” where every summer I get a really good gyro and some chilled white wine. I sit at the same table every time and watch the owner charm the passing tourists into sitting down to eat.  I’m fascinated by the man’s ability to know each person’s language. He’s way more skilled than the usual restaurant shills who try to lure you in with the two or three sentences they know.

Yesterday he charmed two pretty girls from South Africa into sitting at the table at my left, treating them to a piece of his “famous spinach pie” as an appetizer.  Then he gathered a rollicking table of Italians and told them which beer to order.  Directly in front of me were two American boys who had befriended two girls whose accents suggested that they came from someplace once in the USSR. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to see America,” I heard one of them say.

Wrapped in my cloak of invisibility I could hear the South African girls complaining about their parents: “If my mother ever found out!”  I could watch the American boys rather awkwardly courting the much more sophisticated Slavic girls.  I reflected that every young person should be required to take a year off before the age of 30, to tour the world with a backpack and sit in a taverna like this one, listening to the owner speak a medley of languages and learning about the world.

When he brought me the (very modest) bill, I tried to tell the owner that I come back every year because I enjoy watching him speak so many languages so well, but he just shrugged and rushed off to greet some Japanese tourists.  I think he didn’t hear me.

(Note: this was originally posted three summers ago, but since then has evoked some intriguing and thought-provoking comments, one of which came in yesterday (Sept. 1, 2014) from "Carolyn".  Here it is:

Gosh, Good memories of reading Doris Lessing. Thanks for the article. I'm over 60 now, and my gut response is : True, older women garner less attention and attentiveness. Although I agree that my temperament and energy has more to do with this response than whether I look stylish or young. For perspective here, I'd also say - If you want a treatise on feeling invisible - try imagining being an African American female or male of any age, on vacation, even though much has changed over the years. My personal response when I'm getting the invisible treatment is : Q-TIP ( Quit Taking It Personally) and be sure to engage my OWN interest in others as I encounter them.