Friday, May 29, 2009


I love blowing bubbles; it may be my favorite form of meditation. When I was a child and teenager I would sit on the radiator and blow them out of my eleventh floor bedroom window. I would watch to see how far they travelled, if they made it across West End Avenue; I would follow as best as possible to see how many floors down they drifted and if any made it to street level. My cat RJ was extremely curious about these light-infused, delicate ambulatory objects. At first he was perturbed by them – he would chase them and they would mysteriously disappear as soon as he got his paws (or a paw or nose) on them. After a number of experiences stalking them he seemed to understand that that was their nature – they disappeared as soon as they were touched. And so began the practice of Bubble Hunting, a great game between us, in which he would follow them watchfully, sometimes giving sudden chase, and swat them as late as he dared before they reached the floor and disappeared of their own accord. Observing him engaged in this activity brought me no end of glee, especially as I fancied that he looked quite satisfied after a session, sitting up tall and licking his mouth. I sometimes blew them at night, when they looked even more magical and evanescent against the dark sky. On occasion the wind would play along and blow the bubbles back into the apartment.
I also associate bubbles with Lawrence Welk, which my mother watched when I was very little and which felt as oddly non-hip or American as my parents. Those bubbles are black and white, as was our TV screen then; funny because in general I think of bubbles as timeless, not dated. I remember my envy of the huge bubble-makers, the ones that came with large geometric wands and platters for dunking them in the soapy water; those were brought to the park by cooler parents and seemed decadent and daring.
As a younger adult I have often bought bubbles, cheap bottles from the local drugstore, as gifts or in lieu of cards, especially for birthdays, a way to give others a package of wonder to take into further adulthood. I miss Penny Whistle Toys on Columbus Avenue, which for years parked above their storefront a mechanical bear who blew oodles of bubbles onto the street to entice and delight.
One of my college neighbors fell in love with bubbles with a Zen philosophical fervor. He could wax about them for a long time and his pace was languorous and worshipful of each orb; when he spoke about them his hand curved as if he was holding one ever so carefully. I still remember the glistening of the baubles against the Gothic buildings and green lawns. One day he was distressed to come home and find one of his roommates blowing huge groups of bubbles out the window with the help of a hair dryer. I understood both impulses: the dashed delicate nerves of the dreamer and the irreverent genius of the jester; I remember thinking that it was the kind of playful inventiveness that really could save the world, as could regular doses of such meditative, dreamy and pointless play. Purse your lips and blow slowly; see how many bubbles you can get out of one dip of your magic wand. Our own orb will wait while you watch for them to pop quietly, wetly dispersing into the atmosphere.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Left and Right

I am a strong lefty, with a very large writer’s bump on my middle finger and a bend in my nail. Yet I type – very fast – one-handedly with my right hand, with only the very occasional aid of my left hand, usually not necessary but rather a concession to the idea that both hands should be employed at the keyboard. My typing practice without fail freaks people out when they see it for the first time, even when I explain how useful it can be: I can use my left hand to hold the phone, sift through papers and even once, on a dare from a colleague, eat lunch while continuing to take notes at a meeting. Taking notes is a much larger subject that I should revisit in a later post. Yes, I have been typing all of my blog entries in the way just described.
How did I come to do this? The evolution of my technique was doubtlessly aided by the fact that I am a pianist, so the idea of having each hand do something different was not foreign to me. Most importantly I came of age at the dawn of the computers’ wide-spread adoption in educational realms. All through elementary school I hand-wrote (and occasionally watched my father type on his Yiddish type-writer, though at home he much preferred to write by hand. This seems the appropriate place to mention that his hand-writing was incredibly tiny and neat, just as mine is – shockingly so in both English and Hebrew - see photo above) my work. In high school I did acquire a type-writer; my school realized almost at the last minute that my class could not graduate without a basic course in computer skills so they required us to take it during our free time; the classes below mine already had it embedded in their regular curriculum schedule and requirements. While sitting at the type-writer I developed the habit of flipping through my notes and drafts with my left hand so that I could write to myself additional notes as needed. As I did this I typed up my final versions with my right hand and thus the process was born. It continued when I went to college and went to the computer rooms to produce my papers for submission. I was not a great fan of the computer room and did much of my creative work elsewhere; this meant that I came to the machine with written papers in hand. I resisted buying a computer of my own until my senior year. By that time my habits were set and worked well enough that I saw no need to change them.
While I am perfectly comfortable with these habits and their mechanical ease I often wonder about the repercussions of my system in terms of how my brain works: if my right brain is dominant but not involved in the production of that which I type what does that say about my computer output? What of the general understanding that the left brain is logical and the right creative? Should I be engaging in creative writing by hand and only typing when I am producing copy for consumption by others? All of this musing is working on the assumption that my brain is wired typically; there are lefties who are left-brain dominant. I often write out notes at early points in projects. I also still keep a hand-written journal, as I have since I was twelve, and generally use it to process random thoughts and impressions of the day, something akin to the Morning Pages that Julia Cameron describes in her book The Writer’s Way, which I finally read only a short while ago. If attending a lecture I prefer to take hand-written notes as I listen; it helps me both process and stay focused. I can also write about other things if I am not sufficiently engaged by the presentation. If I am going to be preparing official notes from a meeting then I prefer to type and not have to re-do them later. Writing by hand is also appealing because of its sensual nature: the feel, texture and color of the materials and the movement entailed, much more elegant and languorous then typing. The sound always makes me think of the somber clicking of an old-fashioned machine that used to serve as theme music for 1010WINS, the main news radio station in New York, in the days when serious reporting would not employ any bells or whistles. I confess that until recently creative thinking did not come as naturally to me when I typed, but there are so many possible contributing factors that I could not be sure if it meant anything beyond an unconscious connection between typing and work as opposed to pleasure or expression. That dichotomy is also somewhat forced or false. Is my voice different in the two media? I think not really at this point, but it would be interesting to devise experiments to explore the question.
I always note lefties in my orbit; at Interlochen nine of my sixteen cabin mates were lefties, a shock but perhaps not a surprise at an arts camp. I mused that if I had returned I would have asked the camp if it were possible to poll the entire student body to see what the overall percentage was. Our current and a disproportionate number of recent presidents all share the trait. Life for lefties is difficult as many of the design details of our lives are fashioned for lefties: keys, doorknobs, etc. It is easier sometimes to learn to use one’s right hand, as my father was forced to do when he was a child. He ended up being ambidextrous, which may account at least in part for how unbelievably prolific he was. I did wonder this about him as well – was he in some way different when writing with each hand? He did type with both hands, but he never learned to use a computer.
Photo courtesy of Lucy Raubertas,
©2009 Leah Strigler

Monday, May 25, 2009

Landmarks and Longing

I thought up this title for a friend long ago and then regretted giving it away. It is especially perfect for a discussion about architecture and how it affects us. I am not sure when I first became interested in the field or in architectural history; I grew up in Manhattan so buildings have always been my natural landscape. Perhaps awareness developed because of the contrast between my native city and Israel, and especially Jerusalem, which I visited every summer as a child. In both places, wildly different from each other otherwise, there are layers of history to be detected in the scenery and in the memories which it evokes. This interest of mine remains an avocation and passion; I am wont to point out an interesting design detail or burst into impromptu sharing of history and trivia when walking the city with friends. A number of people have suggested that I become a tour guide and I think that it is a good idea.
Summers in the city I fed this passion in a few different ways, including volunteering at Belvedere Castle (the highest point in Central Park and where the park’s temperature is measured) and at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where I scoured through buildings documents doing research for what became the Ladies’ Mile historic district. Later on I would work in the building that had once been the headquarters of Simon and Schuster (and which until recently housed United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) complete with a little study on the mezzanine that was said to be where Teddy Roosevelt sat and wrote his memoirs. His reconstructed birthplace, a national historic site, is only a few blocks away. I took a class at the Metropolitan Museum with a member of the Commission and that led me to volunteering. That class was my formal introduction to the study of architecture. With class guest Elliot Willensky we analyzed the block of 82nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison, with the main entrance to the museum filling the view past the western end of the block.
My interests in museums dovetails here: Belvedere is an educational center and the staff there sent me to my first meeting of NYCMER, the NYC Museum Education Roundtable. Historic sites usually identify as museums and museums often make use of their buildings and especially their interior spaces to help shape their experiences and tell stories. One of my favorite features of the Metropolitan’s building complex is that there are glimpses in the current interior of what were formerly exterior elements. In college I took Modern Architecture with the legendary Vincent Scully while he raged against the proposed handicap access elevator to Cross-Campus Library, complaining that it would ruin the symmetry of the library approach. Walking to class one morning he tripped over some ice (it was a snowy winter), broke his leg and spent the rest of the semester in a wheel chair. He publicly acknowledged the importance of access over aesthetics, at least in certain cases. I also took Study of the City with Alexander Garvin and loved the complexity of urban planning and development but I ignored the call.
Anthony Tung left the Landmarks Commission and later wrote a book called Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis, with stories of urban centers that survive various kinds of disasters. It was published in the Fall of 2001 and I went to hear him give a presentation on it at the start of November at the Municipal Art Society. The audience was dominated by people in related fields such as architecture and urban planning; the feeling of loss weighed heavy in the air and made the room seem dark and stormy. It was still too raw to really feel that rebuilding was possible, but one story in particular stayed with me and gave me hope. Even though New York and Jerusalem are featured in the book, it was the tale of Warsaw during World War Two; it is the city where my father was located at the outset of that war. Local planners, there and in other European cities, took note of the destruction that war would bring and made plans for rebuilding afterwards. In Poland this activity was outlawed by the occupying forces, but engaged in nonetheless by professionals driven to see their city survive. In particular, architecture faculty at Warsaw Technical University preserved documentation, including photographs, of the cityscape to be used as reference in the future. Tung describes in detail the forces that marshaled post-war to recreate the city, mostly true to its historic form. I visited Warsaw a few years later and because I knew the story, but also because of my family’s history, it felt surreal. It was still majestic, if a bit too shiny still to be truly hundreds of years old. I have shared the story of these urban heroes often.
When I worked in the local bookstore, whose memory inspires longing as well, there was a pattern of people who would come in with a certain glazed look in their eyes, saying “I just read the best book in the world and I have to buy copies for everyone I know”. It was always Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a time-travel novel and quintessential romance with historic New York City. There are other novels that evoke similar feelings, but none with the same grandeur and satisfaction as this masterpiece, in which The Dakota, one of the crown jewels of the Upper West Side, serves as a crucial landmark. Beloved buildings appearing in the past and present serve as anchors.
The seeming solidity of buildings, cities and civilizations: they are signposts on which we hang so many messages about what we know, believe to be true and see as possible. They are examples of an artistic form that simultaneously contains past, present and future.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Small Feet

I used to wear size 5, sample size, and life was bliss. I could walk into shoe stores with friends and make them jealous by trying on everything on display while they waited for the salesperson to return with boxes for them. Most of my shoes came from sample sales, causing more jealousy. In truth the shoes were often a bit too big but I made do; after all, shopping for shoes was easy and fun. Then one day, fifteen or so years ago, the industry shifted sizes, and what was a 5 became a 4. Some stores eventually stopped carrying 5s altogether. All this was to accommodate the vanity of American women, whose average sizes had been on the increase. I suddenly could not find shoes anywhere. I knew that a few far flung specialty places (and yes I know Neiman’s but they are not in Manhattan) carried size 4 but the trouble and the cost were added insult to injury after the halcyon days I had enjoyed. I bought no shoes for about a year and a half – can you imagine the torture for a woman in New York City?
Finally one day in desperation I walked into Shoofly’s store on Amsterdam (this branch is now defunct, but you can visit them in Tribeca; see; also check out their hats and hair accessories) to see if I could find suitable children’s shoes. I found that I was not the only adult woman in the store shopping for herself; a new obsession was born. I became a devotee of children’s shoes, which are thankfully – at least in this city - chic and sophisticated, well-made, often European. My one dilemma is that it is extremely hard to find real heels, although low heels and wedges do appear. Also, there is a tendency for colors and designs that might seem OTT for the over 14 set. It is fun most of the time to have such shoes – from hot pink clogs with real wood to purple sequins on leopard print. This is all partly because I still love to buy shoes on sale and hence surrender to the serendipity of the hunt when most of the black shoes are gone. My favorite store is Harry’s Shoes for Kids at the end of the season ( I walk in and declare my size (34 for the most part; New Balance for Kids 21/2 extra wide is my perfect sneaker size, determined by one of the wonderful salespeople here) and often submit to having my foot measured first – I can understand the skepticism of a salesperson who has not yet worked with me. But then they mumble that they will be back with whatever they have on sale in my size. I will try anything, almost, because I still have this lingering fear that I will never again find shoes that fit me.
I do have other shoe haunts, especially discount stores – Daffys and Marshalls (especially the branch in Harlem) have great shoe sections. I wish I could find an outlet that sells Stevie’s, Steve Madden’s children’s line, so that I could try them on before buying; they are available online. His designs tend to wedges and heels, giving me some much needed height. Once in a blue moon I do find adult shoes, the rare 5 or small 6, that fit me. Sometimes it is because of a company that runs small in their sizing, sometimes it is because the design of the shoe (think pointed toe) makes extra length workable. Lately as I have explored Williamsburg I have found two pairs of wedges and a pair of fabulous black heels – Lucy’s advice about the last was that I should buy them and wear them frequently.
The other day I took a long walk in a pair of very comfortable but absurdly colorful sneakers: lilac-silver suede edged in Barbie pink plastic. I bought them in part because they are so over the top. On Park Avenue a young woman and admired them and pointed them out to her companion. She was a toddler and showing them to her mother. I commented that her patent Mary Janes were in my favorite color, a deep burgundy.
These days I usually boast about how small my feet are - on occasion I even display them - in order to talk about shoes and how I shop. People also will notice them before I say anything and make hilarious remarks; one of my favorites of all time was the colleague, whom I had known for years, who exclaimed with new awareness “How do you stay balanced on those”? I sometimes up the ante by saying that my parents bound my feet when I was little. I cannot believe that people fall for it. As both ancient tradition and sizing practices attest, small feet are a sign of beauty, and beauty is not always practical. My shoes rarely make me feel beautiful in the sense of being elegant but they usually make me feel happy and support me well when I walk. Together with my feet they keep me feeling youthful and playful as I get farther away from being one of those customers who scores a balloon at the end of a store visit.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Blogs and Other Fabulous Things

My friend Lucy of has graciously made note of askingLeah in her listing for the Your Blog is F@*%^&# Fabulous! Award and I am honored, especially as such a newbie to the blogosphere (a word that I know is becoming out-dated). So now in turn I am acknowledging five favorite blogs:

Drunken Corpse: Charlie’s Blog Academy meetup is the final push that got me to actually start this blog and I am grateful for her energy, encouragement and extroversion. Enjoy her smart and sassy take on media, current events and the world.
Places: Peg and her husband Bernie (and their collies) are neighbors, friends and inspiration for the kind of traveler I would like to be. They are ceaseless adventurers and artists and this blog is laying the groundwork for chronicling their further adventures travelling around the country in their new SUV. Their wonderful photography illustrates every step…
Roxana Illuminated Perfumes: Roxana is an exquisite artist, perfumer and writer. Follow her botanical creations and illuminating reflections: and click on “buzz and blog”.
StorySpiral: Many kudos to Nadya Peeva who has created an amazing community of seekers interested in imagining a new future with different stories, ideas and inspiration to action. Look for the group on and learn more at
Vetivresse: Christopher Voigt’s wide-ranging intellect and areas of expertise make his perfume blog exceptionally erudite and enlightening.

Five addictions that I have beyond perfume:

Books: I have been addicted to reading for as long as I can remember. I love to own books and reread my favorites; this is my largest and most beloved collection by far, the dominant design element in my apartment.
Shoes: Subject for a future post, but I have small feet and buy children’s shoes almost exclusively. Since finding shoes that fit is not easy it has become an obsession and great pleasure when the hunt is successfully completed. Good shoes are also essential for addiction #4 below.
Journaling: I have been keeping a journal since receiving one as a gift in middle school. I have piles of completed ones and love finding beautiful blank books that I can turn into journals. I usually write daily and when I fall out of practice I feel the difference in my thinking and muscles.
Walking: My most favorite form of meditation and really of existing: exploring terrain either familiar or new, feeding my eyes while my thoughts roam and moving to clear out all the accumulated energy.
Music: an instant mood-changer and energizer, it is off how often I forget how happy music makes me. I must have been a musician in at least one former life, probably in medieval or Renaissance times.

Rules for this Award series:

You pass it (the award) onto 5 other fabulous blogs in a post.
You list 5 of your fabulous addictions in the post.
You copy and paste the rules and the instructions below in the post. (Below)

Instructions: On your post of receiving this award, make sure you include the person that gave you the award and link it back to them. When you post your five winners, make sure you link them as well. Also, don’t forget to let your winners know they won an award from you by emailing them or leaving a comment on their blog.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Choosing a Piano Teacher

At Interlochen (see New York City State of Mind, posted in March) piano students chose teachers individually. On one of the first days all the piano teachers held hours at their studios, located off of one great hall, in order to meet with students and sign them up for lessons. The more popular ones held auditions. I was new so I asked around for recommendations and promptly got myself on line for the most mentioned, a teacher I’ll call Maestro. While I was waiting I had someone hold my place so that I could go around and see some of the other teachers; I met a few, included a man who I think of as the Composer because he was one as well. I attended a performance he gave of some of his own pieces, which used hands and arms as well as fingers on the keyboard. A teddy bear of a man, he had a quiet but thoughtful manner. I returned in time to perform for Maestro, who listened to me play and then barked “I can fit you in on Friday at 8 AM”; I said yes of course. I felt quite honored that he would take me on, given all of his others students and that I was a new camper, too old to develop a years-long relationship with him. But I left with a bad feeling in my stomach. I knew that this would likely be my one summer in residence and I wanted it to feel right. So I went to Composer, signed up, came back and thanked Maestro but said that I had chosen to study with someone else. That summer was bliss; I was introduced to new composers and performed in a master class and was relaxed enough that I never worried about competition or whether I was progressing in any way beyond my own internal compass. This was a luxury that my friends in orchestra and band, who faced weekly seat challenges, could not afford. And it was going to be a way of life for those who aspired to professional careers in music; I already knew that was not compatible with my Jewish observance, but I also knew that I liked people too much to spend six hours or more each day seated at the keyboard. Freed from the yearning to “make it” as a pre-professional, I was able to absorb everything the place could offer me with fretting. Composer was true to his nature as a teacher: gentle, even–keeled, open in sharing his wisdom and guidance. No barking.
Towards the end of the season I ran into Maestro in a small clearing along one of the pathways near main camp. He acknowledged me, stopped and asked how my summer had been. I do not remember what I said, but I think that I smiled and assured him that it had been good as indeed it had been. I was trying not to gape; I had immediately understood that I was recognizable because I was probably one of the few (only?) students who had declined to study with him. The respect he accorded me as a result was a tremendous gift and mark of his greatness; I wish I could say as much of others I have disappointed or ruffled. To this day I wonder what, if anything, he learned from it. And I do wonder what I would have learned from him, even though I have no regrets about my decision.
Just over a year later I found myself auditioning again, this time for a piano teacher at college. I was a freshman just starting and I only wanted half-hour lessons to start, but I was good enough to be matched with a professor. He was fresh from completing his doctorate, sweet but quiet in a way that held little wisdom as of yet. One of the first pieces that he assigned me included a passage very difficult for my small hands (my span is basically an octave, a bit more if I stretch hard) and it was painful. Respectful of his methodology, I brought him a piece with a similar passage that I had studied with my childhood teacher back home and explained how we had adjusted the fingering for my hands. I asked if we could do so with this new piece as well. My teacher was non-plussed, laughed nervously and said that I should continue as set out originally. I quit lessons soon after and did not return to them ever again. For a long time I practiced on my own, but between the pulls of college life and the lack of a teacher or a professional goal, I found my interest atrophying. Those who knew me when I was young are sometimes shocked because they think of me as a serious pianist.
Growing up I had the great good fortune to have an amazing teacher at Hebrew Arts School (now Lucy Moses School:, where I took lessons, and two great teachers at Usdan (, an arts day camp on Long Island. All of them were assigned to me and all were demanding but they were also thoughtful and themselves open to learning new things. All of them understood me and knew when to push me and when to let me grow on my own. This post does not do them justice, so I will plan a revisit. But I need to add here that they set the bar extremely high and led to my being a very particular student. Perhaps I did not give the Maestro or the young professor enough of a chance, but I had little tolerance then for a teaching partnership that did not feel right. I also had more moxie and self-conviction. I still rarely practice piano, although over the years two of my old teachers have asked for me to play for them. I am too embarrassed, but I do hold onto the goal that one day I will be able to revisit those partnerships and again study music with them. I need to practice first…
© 2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Idiot Box

I rarely watched TV as a child; I missed most of the 1970s hits, although I was aware of them. I have a flash memory of standing in the gym in my elementary school, in line for some equipment, and not being able to add to the conversation about the previous night’s episode of The Bionic Woman. The homework load of a yeshiva day school education coupled with two hours of piano practice each night left very little time for such activities and when I had the time I preferred to read. Many years later when I moved into my own apartment I was so removed from the idea of TV that I hardly thought before I decided to not buy one; I also did not buy a VCR – I have now bypassed this technology completely - or a cable subscription. I reasoned that it would save me a lot of money and wasted time. A friend’s boyfriend was so incensed to learn of my TV-less state that I quipped that if it bothered him so he could get me one. A few weeks later I received a small black and white, encased in colorful plastic like an Apple machine from the turn of the century. It came in time for me to watch the breaking news about the recount of votes in Florida. I kept it unplugged on a shelf but it took it out one morning in September after hearing on the radio the first report that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center. I saw the first footage and thought to myself that the subway would be backed up and I had better take a bus to work. I saw comparatively little of the endless loop that that story would become. It was only the news that really made me feel like I was missing out on anything, and of course I was, for media is a critical tool of popular culture in our society. Oh, I eventually gave away that little model - sorry Don – maybe because of the associations with that morning report but mostly I think because I wanted color TV if any at all.
These days, not so much farther in the future, thanks to computers with DVD players and to the growing amount of video on the internet I have the ability to procrastinate by browsing through a treasure trove of shows (and movies) from my youth and beyond. This is a terrible admission from someone who has long prided herself on not owning a TV. And I need to clarify: I watched little but I did choose to see some things that were significant influences. Hill Street Blues appeared when I was in middle school and I was rapt; I followed it religiously. Much has been written about the show’s innovations and importance, how it was unlike anything else broadcast until its time, gritty and fast and complicated, with continuing storylines and a large ensemble cast. Watching the first two seasons again (I am stuck in the third season at the painful moment when an old Jewish man is threatening to jump from the roof rather than be evicted from his apartment) I was amazed at how practically every shot and line were imprinted somewhere in my memory; it was the oddest form of déjà vu, with the consciousness and realization of how deeply these episodes were imprinted on me. Today I see that some of it is silly – to be fair, much of intentionally – and that some of it is dated. But it is still breath-taking for all of the risks that it took, for all of the tough narrative turns and for how human it made its characters.
I was also a huge fan of PBS and when Brideshead Revisited appeared I became obsessed. I saw each episode at least three times. One friend gave me an old-fashioned jointed teddy bear that she named Aloysius for me. This summer another friend gifted me (for my birthday) the whole series on DVD and I spent one weekend dreamily immersed in that grey landscape, heavy with history, marveling once again at the gorgeous settings, acting and ennui. The DVD set came with bonus features, including a number of those involved in the production commenting on how unique an enterprise it was, with thirteen hours given over to the adaptation of a single novel, a particular gift for the actors. I have not yet seen the recent remake in part because it is so radically short, that is the length of a regular movie. I hope that you are humming the theme music of one of these series to yourselves as you read. For a while I had the following quote from Sebastian as a message on my answering machine; it was particularly appropriate for graduation week, although one caller protested that it was too sad. He says it to Charles during an early escape that they take, while they are lying in the grass post-picnic: “Just the place to bury a crock of gold. I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable I could come back and dig it up and remember.” It now seems to me that this is exactly what our favorite old shows and movies do for us: we revisit them but we also revisit ourselves when we first watched them. Even better, as long as the video is playing we get to travel back in time as well, pretending that we are once again viewing from the vantage point of our younger selves.
©2009 Leah Strigler

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Tremor in His Right Hand

My favorite book of all time is a young adult novel by Ellen Raskin, a well-known illustrator who wrote four “puzzle-mysteries,” or novels for older readers, before she passed away, of illness, at age fifty six in 1984. The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is not as famous as The Westing Game, which won the Newberry Medal in 1979, nor as playfully memorable as The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Both of these have opaque one-liners and references that true fans know by heart. One friend at college would trade these with me as greetings: “purple waves,” or “Grown a mustache. It’s red!” I used to be able to recite the glub-blubs. The last novel, Figgs and Phantoms, is more oddly mysterious in its exploration of death and afterlife. Raskin was from Wisconsin, which features prominently in Leon I Mean Noel, and the University at Madison has an online compendium of state authors and illustrators. Raskin is one of the authors included and her page contains archival material such as the manuscript of The Westing Game and an audio recording of a presentation in which she discusses The Westing Game, with comments along the way on her other “books without pictures” and the process of her work: It is curious to me that in this speech she says little about the plot of my favorite novel, although she does confess that the house depicted (in Greenwich Village) is hers. She also shares that the core idea that birthed the book was art, a subject not covered in the previous two mysteries. I wonder if her reticence to talk about it stems from its closeness to her primary profession as an artist.
As a child I loved all of these books, but The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues is the one that I continue to read annually to this day. The book’s protagonist is Dickory Dock, a determined and naïve young art student. She takes a job working for Garson, a successful portrait painter for the wealthy; he comes across as callous and superficial but has much to hide. He finds his employee cum apprentice more astute than he expected. Each learns from the other and by the end of the book the lives of both have changed significantly. Through a series of cases in which they aid the New York City Police Department, a gig Garson scores by boasting at a party about his abilities, the two of them hone their skills of observation and perception - seeing through the masks that people routinely employ by solving crimes.
Garson is obsessed with costumes, which are tools of his trade as he dresses up his subjects in suitable roles. The title of my post refers to one of the many teaching games that he plays with Dickory: he routinely shows up to his own house disguised, but Dickory always recognizes him. Her most compelling explanation as to how she does so is to note the tremor in his right hand. Garson’s persona is highly constructed; his uncontrolled tremor seems to represent his real self and/or artistic genius, a quality that he can never fully hide.
I return to this book for many reasons. Certainly I am touched by the sympathetic portrayal of an artist tortured by the truths disclosed in his work. Also, I am moved by the development of the mentor-mentee relationship in which the student, a scrappy New Yorker with her own ghosts, helps her teacher move beyond his own blocks and burdens. [In another game Garson asks Dickory to describe people in one word; his for her is haunted]. The author has, in the guise of a playful book, managed to explore profound issues of truth, art, humanity and identity. I should add that because the emphasis is on portraiture, the focus is on how people present themselves and perceive each other, which means that in the end it is about relationships and how our beliefs about ourselves and each other can keep us from true to ourselves as well as connecting with others. I can no longer remember how much of this I “got” on my first read, but it was enough to keep me coming back. I love too that in the end it is the brutal honesty that the artist so fears that turns out to make everything right, or almost. I would share my favorite line, but it would give everything away. A tension in this post is that I do not want to tell the entire plot, but know that the book is out of print. I have made paper copies in order to share it with others and own two editions, the hard cover a most thoughtful gift from a friend; they never leave my home.
While Raskin, Garson and Dickory are all artists, words are equally important and just as useful in covering and uncovering insights. In the recorded talk Raskin remarks on how she thinks of herself as an artist rather than a writer; I wonder how the interplay of these talents might have developed further if she had lived a longer life. As the body of her work makes evident, her unique gifts blended together brilliantly.
© 2009 Leah Strigler