“And did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”  
                                                                                                                                     – Pink Floyd
All That Is Now
 
 

Burn, baby burn.
No. 6   |  48°N/2°E

A wow moment.  In the flurry and excitement of getting ready to leave for Paris, one of the things that crossed my mind often was how the moment of epiphany would play out once we got to our destination.  When would that flash of realization that we are actually living in the city of our dreams hit us?  Where would we be?  On the runway as the plane lands?  Moving out of the temporary hotel and into our first apartment?  In between courses during our first meal?  Our fifth?  During a chat at a café or on a long stroll along the Seine?  There were so many possible settings for such a momentous and transformative “wow” moment.  We arrived in our new home and set about the mundane and extraordinary things of life, and waited, not overtly, for it.

It did not come.  At least not the kind of moment that I had envisioned so vividly and simply.  What I had in mind was Nez and I sitting along the banks of the Seine, taking in all of the magical senses, and then closing my eyes momentarily and involuntarily mouthing that almost imperceptible consonant, “wow,” signaling a complete and total surrender to all that was beautiful and perfect in the world..

 
 The start of the night’s feature:
Bardot at 22 and the sun at its daily apex.
 

Then, sometime in early August, we packed our picnic supplies – terrine de campagne, baguettes, sliced fresh mango, homemade salsa, and a bottle of rosé – and took the métro line 5 to Porte de Pantin in the northeast corner of Paris.  Our destination:  The Cinéma en Plein Air.  Our objective:  Roger Vadim’s provocative 1956 film, “Et Dieu … Créa La Femme,” that introduced sleepy Saint-Tropez to the world and opened dazzlingly with a very naked Brigitte Bardot sunbathing in the endless sun of the Côte d’Azur.

  
 
  Tonight, dinner was served on a picnic blanket and included paté, fresh mango, chips, and the best salsa in Paris – homemade by Nez.
 

We did not know when to arrive and the official brochure for this outdoor cinema announced poetically that the features would be shown “à la tombée de la nuit.”  While we love the flair of that statement, this being summer, night does not fall until very late, and on some nights, it appears not to come at all.  To be on the safe side, we arrived a little after eight and found the open field of the Prairie du Triangle only half occupied.  So, we made the most of the time by visiting the next-door exhibition entitled, “Dots Obsession,” by the artist Yayoi Kusama.  It was free, a tie-in to the Cinéma en Plein Air, and Nez had heard of its influence on the designer Marc Jacobs in her fashion design class.  At the entrance, a volunteer curator offered us a few words of introduction – he could have gotten more in had our French been more adequate – and invited us to “get lost among the dots.”  We did and it was aesthetically pleasing, although I will honestly say that we didn’t “get” it, whether that was a goal or encouraged.  Although we certainly could identify on many levels with the artist’s declaration:  “Ma vie est un pois perdu parmi des milliers d’autres pois.”  (My life is a lost dot among the thousand other dots.)

  
 
  We are forever lost in Paris so why not allow ourselves to get lost here too?
 

Afterward, we found ourselves a nice spot in the middle of the field, near the projection tower.  Around us, dinners on the grass had begun in earnest; diners at every cluster were seemingly lost in their own world.  Everyone except the two guys to our right who had set, and continually reset, the plates, wine glasses, and utensils on an immaculate picnic blanket.  They were obviously waiting for someone.  (Nez rightly speculated it was a double date although the girls did not arrive until minutes before the movie started; the guys made do with a bottle of wine until then.)  We had our wonderful little picnic under a gorgeous evening sky strewn with tuffs of cloud and streaks of long-gone jets.  Nez makes the best salsa and cuts the best chunky slices of mango.  After a while, I plopped my head on her lap while she fed me the mango.  The weather was a perfect t-shirt temperature and the low humming cacophony of laughters and voices wafted about.  The fresh cut grass caressed our feet while the sweet evening air put time on hold.  As I rested my head back down on Nez’s lap after rising to take a sip of wine, I looked up at the contours of her face silhouetted against a lazy sky, drew a deep breath, and on the exhale a distinct note escaped through the slight part of my lips:  “Wow.”

The movie had not even started.

  
 
  The blown-up screen glowed purple as the crowd eagerly awaited the night’s feature, which came rushing forth from a tall, solitary tower.
 

A little after ten, air was blown into a large inflatable that became the enormous screen, reminiscent of something out of a Floyd concert.  The screen began to flicker that sunbathing scene that had forever burned in the minds of millions of teenage boys across the world (which includes in its ranks, as it turns out, Nez’s dad).  It took a moment but we both quickly realized that the movie was in French (bien sûr!) and there was no English subtitle (of course not).  We did our best to follow the plot and, with less success, the dialogues.  I had seen “And God Created Woman” once before in college, with English subtitles, but do not now recall anything but the opening scenes.  Cinema might very well be the universal language but on this night we found even that universality difficult to comprehend.

What’s easier to understand was the simple magic that Paris tosses about and allows one to discover at one’s own pace.  From mid-July to mid-August, it is possible to catch any number of films in this magnificent environment for just 2€ a person (add 3€ more for a lawn chair and blanket).  On our way home, we decided that we would return for the three-film marathon on Friday night featuring all three parts of the Godfather.  Nine hours of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces (OK, at least the first two were), in English with French subtitles, would take us through the night into the break of dawn, from dinner-time picnic on the grass to early morning pit stop at a bakery.  Alas, we did not make it back to the Parc de la Villette.  The weather was lousy for the rest of the week, threatening rain at every turn, and that would not be very fun under an open sky in the middle of the night.  Or, perhaps it would.

Perhaps next year when the show rolls into town once again.  I hope we’ll be there to take advantage of it.  I’m forever a kid in a candy store ready to be wowed in all the unexpected ways.

“Wow” just about sums up the feeling.  

 

 
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No. 5  |  48°N/2°E
 

Le changement est arrivé.  “Mom, so Barrack Obama is the new president.”  That was how Nez woke her mom up early the morning of November 5, Central European Time.  Her mom had a flight back to the States to catch; Nez and I had been up all night, more or less, perched by the computer screen.  The way Nez softly uttered those words one would think she was merely telling her mom the time.  But these times were anything but ordinary.

Like millions of people, Americans and otherwise, we have been caught up with this election like we never had in our lives.  We kept up with the long primaries, counting delegates and super delegates.  We stayed up to date with the campaigns, keeping daily tabs on the polls.  On our first visit back home in late August, the entire family sat in the living room, transfixed by the master orator on TV, coming through all the way from Denver, never mind that our plates of food were getting cold.  Nez and I even stayed awake on this side of the Atlantic to watch every presidential debate plus the vice-presidential one.  We were, however, unable to catch Tina Fey live on Saturday nights and had to resort to replays on the web.

Admittedly, we are partisan through and through, which made it hard at times not to snicker at or be infuriated by the words and deeds of the other side.  Overall, we felt a sort of inevitability, an undeniable sense that all is possible as we were on the right side of history.  Nevertheless, there were also moments of unease, a nagging fear that this victory would somehow be snatched away in the waning days of the campaign.

 
   
 
  The Barrack Obama booster club on rue des Canettes:  Founding members.
 

On Election Day, I walked around Paris proudly with my Obama button as a sign of faith.  We had sent in our absentee ballots weeks before to be safe, now all we could do was wait.  The results started coming in slowly, snail-paced; a few electoral votes in one column, a few more in the other.  As the night drew on, we would drift off to sleep only to jerk awake moments later to see the numbers inching toward 270.  Then, at around 5 A.M., it came.  I don’t recall hearing anything.  I just remember holding Nez and the two of us staring silently for a very long time at the unmistaken announcement on the computer screen.

It made me think back to four years ago, to a walk through the streets of the Marais a day or two after that presidential election.  Someone had put up on the wall a fresh poster with the image of the winner and underneath a sole word:  “Merde.”  I had just recently arrived in town from a layover at O’Hare where I sat in a stupor watching the depressing post-election coverage.  Before that I had had beignets with Colleen at Louis Armstrong, both of us trying hard not to look disappointed.  Just hours prior, we had been at Southern University to encourage those already in line before the poll closed to stay and vote.  We did not have to do much, however, the hundreds of students who were there were already determined to stay and vote in an election that had already been decided in their state.  We left at around midnight.  The next day’s news article reported that the last of the students did not leave until two or three in the morning.  Finally, not more than a day removed from Paris, I had been driving through the unfamiliar streets of the Big Easy, looking to purchase a whole lot of flash lights.  The non-partisan organization, Election Protection, was conducting a training session for Election Day volunteers, which included Colleen and me, in a church whose power had gone out.  When I returned with a few from the local corner market, the large room was pitch black save for the speaker who was illuminating herself with a small flash light as she continued talking to an attentive crowd.  Those days in New Orleans went by in a blur but the uplifting feeling of being able to do something, anything, for the greater good never diminished.  Even now, for me the memories from 2004 remain bittersweet.

 
   
 
  The last day on the campaign trail, Gusteau the cat, however, was left at home.  (We suspect that he is a GOP operative because he repeatedly knocks down the Obama button from the window sill and would not stay still for his Election Day photo).
 

Back to the present and on the way to the airport, I scanned the expressionless faces of the day workers for any sign that they too were aware of this historic event.  There were no indications.  That made me so want to blurt out the good news but I stopped at the looks of seeming disinterest.  Later on, back in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Le Monde had even set up a separate booth next to the usual news stand.  I grabbed one of the last copies of the next day’s special edition.  The headline read:  “L’Amérique choisit Barrack Obama.”

That night, my dad’s call opened with, “Congratulations!”  Thanks, but why me?  I hadn’t done anything this time around.  I had just been one of the many who were simply inspired.  In the spirit of the occasion, I lobbed him a softball:  “Did you ever think that a black man would be elected President in your life time?”  “No,” he said instantly, “of course not.”  He had told me exactly that during the primaries though he did not mind being wrong now, not one bit.  We talked some more, optimistically about all the possibilities; we talked about my sister’s sons and their future in a new America.  We haven’t had such a conversation in a long time.

In the next few days, this uplifting feeling was dampened by the bigotry of the vote against gay marriage in our home state.  That battle continues.  All through the following week, the infectious euphoria of “Oui, nous le pouvons!” permeated the French capital.  In the métro, someone scrawled:  “When will France have an Obama?”

 
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No. 4  |  48°N/2°E
 

Requiem for the small things.  Paris, in many ways, is defined by the River Seine.  In a way, there is probably no more singular Parisian experience than taking a stroll along the Seine, either high above by the quais with their green bouquinistes, or just hovering near the water surface on the banks below.  When one’s legs tire, there are always the stolid stone benches scattered about and the ample expanse of inviting cobblestone under one’s feet.

In our Paris, there need never be a reason to head to the river.  We could be walking to get our favorite Lebanese wraps or gelato on rue Saint-André des Arts and feel the urge:  “Want to eat by the river?”  Or, we could be exiting from the BHV superstore, carrying large bags of household goods, and inexplicably decide to walk home along and across the river instead of taking the more direct métro.  And, for a short while (unfortunately, far too short), we would eagerly await the midnight calls to join Neil and Jenn by the river where a bottle of wine, pâté, bread, and the allure of boundless conversation and true friendship awaited.  The river gives much, but sometimes the river takes.

Before the gentle current of the Seine ever took our digital camera into its midst, I had first unwisely placed it on the inside of one leg of my jeans as I sat riverside, with my other leg dangling over the water.  It wasn’t a totally mindless thing to do, you see.  We were having our fried chicken fix and making an oily mess, and inside the pant leg seemed like an ideal place to temporarily shelter the camera.  It did its job exceedingly well until I decided to suddenly shake away all the crumbs on my jeans.

In slow motion, we saw the camera tumbling out of its resting place, bouncing on the sloped embankment, and slipping rapidly beneath the water surface.  Our beloved and invaluable camera was out of reach even before we could muster a thought.  It gave a last, little struggle to rise and then disappeared into the murky water.  I thought to myself, “Should I go in the water to get it?” before voicing the same to Nez.  It was a ridiculous, although not entirely unreasonable, thought and Nez was in agreement.  How was I going to scour the river bottom, not knowing where the river bottom was?  Would this delicate piece of electronic gadgetry still work even if I did manage to recover it?

Then came a pang of sadness, the thought of the one object that I had been carrying around on almost a daily basis sitting on the cold, dark riverbed, abandoned forever even after all it had suffered through to capture the beauty of our everyday existence.  I once more thought of going into the water, without again thinking about how, to try to retrieve the camera.  Instead, I felt a warm embrace from behind and heard Nez’s sweetly whispered words, “Don’t worry, it’s just a camera.”

And it was.  It was a great camera but still just a camera.  It was a metal box without feelings.  It didn’t know or care that it had been carelessly dropped and left behind in a watery grave.  But here on the surface were two human beings and one with a mastery of empathy without ever realizing it.  In the same situation, some might have gotten upset at such clumsiness or carelessness:  “Why did you put it there?”  “Do you know how much that cost?”  “What were you thinking?”  I, myself, might very well be one of those individuals.  Nez, instead, said the only thing that needed to be said and did the only thing needed done.

I’m sure we’ll be returning again and again to the banks of the Seine.  Perhaps even to this very spot — opposite the last tree of a row of trees alongside the Quai des Orfèvres, as you walk westward, away from the Pont Saint-Michel — to remember a once treasured object and to capture future memories with its successor.  

In its short life, of less than a year, this unassuming camera took 8,984 photos and videos, traveled to Vietnam, Cabo San Lucas, New York, Boston, France, Germany, got dragged all over San Francisco and Paris, and attended as many Cal football games as we could get to, home and away.  The last two photos it took and took with it to the bottom were images of Nez and I eating on the embankment on a typical, cool, and never-ending Parisian evening, watching and waving at the passing tour boats.

 
 
 
Very ordinary shots in the life of a camera:   First photo (No. 0001) - San Francisco flat; first Paris photo (No. 5404) - cab ride from CDG, and  last saved photo (No. 8982) - business card from Monaco.
 

Of all the fates that await a digital camera, including undignified obsolescence in a forgotten drawer, our camera might very well be resting in camera heaven, perhaps even blessed with the company of lost items from strollers and picnickers of yesteryears and perhaps even a few relics from the former Roman’s Lutetia or the bloody French Revolution.  It will forever be in Paris long after we are gone, from here and anywhere thereafter.  

The ephemeralness of things was further highlighted when we returned home only to find the square in front of the Saint Sulpice church empty of all the shacks that just yesterday, it seemed, were hawking their antiques.  We both had wandered aimlessly through this temporary, now gone, market many times coming home from language class.  Now, all that was left was the imposing fountain and a barren square, beautiful but empty.

We paused briefly and thought of the small things lost, and then Nez and I turned and went home.
 
 
 
 
Two last images that will forever remain in Paris:    Nez getting ready to eat fried chicken with the Pont Saint-Michel in the background;   Riot flashing a smile against a setting sun.
 
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No. 3  |  48°N/2°E
 

Paris is quiet this morning.  The clock reads 7:17 and a lonely pigeon hops about the tin rooftops.   Andrea Bocelli soars softly over the speakers.  I don’t really know much about Bocelli or the piece that he’s singing, Panis Angelicus.  But as the early sun throws its gentle shadow over the tall, slender chimneys that are scattered about this day, it seems as though everything is within reach, within comprehension.

From our apartment, from where the dining table sits, Paris appears through a square box barely over a foot long on each side.  This is our window to the city that we have yearned for all these months, possibly years.  From where I sit, I feel I can literally reach out and run my fingers against the cracking paint and cold, rusty sheet metal of the neighboring building.  The air is filled with an uplifting feeling, that anything is possible this day, in small portions, through this small portal.

At this moment, I don’t hear the sounds Paris, incomprehensible or otherwise (mostly incomprehensible for now).  Rather, I hear the unmistakably low trembling tenor of Nina Simone doing a bone-chilling rendition of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  From the opening harp notes, the song’s rapture and Ms. Simone’s unequaled delivery suck you in helplessly and willingly.  Such is the power of the intangible.

You know sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that's hard to hide.

What a way to wake up on one ordinary morning of one’s ordinary life.  This is the stuff of life and prose that gives life all on its own and writes itself.  Interestingly, I’ve learned, that the man who wrote Panis Angelicus, St. Thomas of Aquinas, himself once spent some time at the University of Paris in the 1200s and Nina Simone moved to Paris to rebuild her career in the 1970s.  Playing connect the dots is easy and fun with Paris and we fully intend to connect a few dots ourselves during our time here.  Bread of angels, indeed.

 
 
 
  Paris appears through a square box.
 
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No. 2  |  37°N/122°W
 

After the quake we walked back up the hill.  A few blocks ahead lay home; of course it was still standing.  On the corner of Pine and Buchanan sat a cleaner, its white fluorescent light setting it apart from the darkened block.  The exterior security bars offered a measure of safety to the neatly bagged and hanging articles on the inside.  The front glass door was open, although safely behind its own set of bars.  Inside sat a sewing woman who had been entranced in her work since we walked by earlier on our way to dinner.  She was still at it.  Did she feel the quake?

It came as a sustained rattle, the kind you feel if the guy sitting next to you is rhythmically shaking his leg.  I looked left and I looked right but no one sitting nearby seemed like the leg shaking kind.  Then, ever slightly I heard the silverware shaking against the plates followed by the ominous vibration of the large pane glass windows, which finally confirmed that it was indeed a quake.  Diners who had lingered after paying the check quickly got up to leave.  A woman to our left pondered aloud whether to stand under a doorframe as she had learned in a drop-and-cover drill somewhere.  In any event, there weren’t enough doorframes for everyone around.  I got the sense that no one wanted to be the first one to act the way one is instructed to act at a time like this; no one wanted to be the first to betray any hint of fear.  Nez and I got up slowly and put on our jackets; I even took one last sip of tea.  Dignity intact and aftershocks be damn.

Then, as we started walking we got to talk about how the quake might not have really happened at all.   Maybe it was just a really nervous guy on a first date with a really hot girl.  Everything just looked so normal, which brought to mind the Lettermanesque query:  “was that anything?” 

Had I strained I think I would have heard the revving sound of the sewing machine, a steady “varroom” the way my friend, former student magazine editor, and all-around Renaissance man, Anthony Duc Le, once captured on paper:

I am a sewing woman
I AM a sewing woman
. . .
The sewing machine and I
converse in our own language.
Varroom . . .

The poem went on to paint images of the sewing woman’s life, constrained neither by time nor space.  On this night, quick stolen glances revealed our very own neighborhood sewing woman lost in her work and world.  She might be excused for not feeling the earthquake, for she might have been creating tremors all on her own.

Before the night ended, the newscaster would confirm a 5.6 earthquake on the Calaveras Fault and I would recite for Nez my old friend’s poem from a copy of a magazine we created back in Fall 1996.  Anthony, wherever he is today and whether he is now Dr. Le, Msgr. Le, or simply Duc, once inspired an assembled string of words that through the years and crevices of the mind came to the forefront one random night in a confluence of events.  And, gave a jolt to what was up until then just another evening.

Because I am a sewing woman
And the conversation is good
In this room, this night,
I am a sewing woman
And time is but needle and thread
.

 
 
 
   And time is but needle and thread.
 
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No. 1  |  37°N/122°W
 

Nothing is original.

For starters, neither Nez nor I came up with the idea to start a website.  The credit goes to our friends, Neil and Jenn, who inspired us with their quest to make life count and share it on the web.  Also not original are the ideas and techniques behind the interplay of objects and words on these pages.  Consciously or otherwise, we must have seen the likes of them, in one form or another, somewhere before.  Finally, there is no truth is the unsupported (and thus unclaimed) notion that putting semi-edited streams of consciousness onto a page comes anywhere close to what would be considered originality.  Read enough of the things written (or soon to be written) here and you might even come away thinking that nothing we — or more accurately, I — say is original.  It all comes from somewhere.  Perhaps that is right.  It is quite all right.

But if I could rightly compose prose anything close to the incomparable R. Waters I might very well write something to the tune of, “all that you touch, all that you see, all that you taste, all you feel” will continue to resonate long after they have been touched, seen, tasted, or felt.  Much like the way the occasional waft of oil-stained air in the San Francisco Muni underground brings to mind (mine) the distinctive scent of the Paris metro; a current perception sometimes echoes an old memory and triggers a future reminiscence.  It might just be that maybe nothing has a beginning or an ending; things just exist apropos of everything.

It would follow, then, that “all that is now, all that is gone, all that’s to come, and everything” ever experienced “is in tune,” but the things unremembered are “eclipsed by the” things you remember.  In that way, “all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be.”

For the grace of great rock ‘n roll bands I go on writing, and what is written really does sound a lot better if you sing it to a tune.  Attribution is a great tool, and an excuse, to liberally quote well-known and time-respected sources and get away with it.  That’s one of the goals of this website anyhow.  We will get away with it because we can.  Just watch us!

Nothing I say here is original.  It is all remembered from somewhere.

 
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