The one scenario I can be assured will not ever happen (but it’s nice to dream)

Hello Ms. Boardman, thank you for returning our call.

I’ll admit I was a bit confused by the voicemail, but I appreciate the detailed email explaining this new program for the arts. It sounds almost too good to be true.

Well, as we said, the US government has decided that we value the creative expression of the human experience. In reviewing your most recent tax return, we see that more than 1/3 of your income is spent paying back your student loans from art school.

Oh heh, yeah, I spent a lot of time in college, so I have some pretty substantial debt.

Well the Department of Education has decided to forgive your federal loans and buy out your private loans. In addition the Arts and Humanities Fund would like to give you a yearly stipend equal to your current salary, plus a little extra so you can travel more.

I don’t understand. What did I do to deserve this?

You’re an artist, aren’t you? You trained to be a painter and opened your heart and soul to emotion and thoughts about being human in this time and place on earth?

Oh sure, but I mean, I’m not even that good of an artist.

How could you be? You haven’t ever really focused on it. We see that you’ve constantly held other jobs and pursued additional degrees. You’re working full-time now and wearing out all your energy and emotional well-being worrying about your job. How are you ever going to develop as a painter in these conditions?

But what I make isn’t really of value to other people. In grad school they said it was amateurish and decorative and that no one painted like that anymore and…

What can anyone else tell you about how you experience the world? How can you know what effect an honest expression of your sensibility may have in others? Look, if you’re not interested you can decline the offer and continue working office jobs and scrambling to pay your loans. That is your choice. But we are trying to make it possible for artists, musicians, performers, and writers to have the same support we give military contractors and Wall Street investment firms. We have decided that while your value may not be inherently and immediately apparent in a capitalist model, there is more to life than money. Something about being human requires not just numbers and derivatives, but an elaborate sensitivity to experience. Our studies have shown the only way to achieve that is to expose the population to the arts.

I’ll totally take it, and thank you. I just feel like there are already so many more established artists out there in galleries and museums who are making a living at it and like, how do I even start to contribute to that dialogue?

You should just make the art. We will handle the money, and we have also established funding for museums and galleries that are not run like nepotistic hedge funds. We recently passed legislation that all Super PAC contributions must be matched with a donation to the new Arts and Humanities Fund. You wouldn’t believe how much money we have to support the arts now, and we figured people shouldn’t have to pay $25 to see rooms full of lackluster, uninspired painting and pretentious curation anymore.

Wow. That sounds pretty amazing.

The Met is going to stay free for everyone all the time, and we’re bringing back those metal buttons that you liked so much.

Oh man, surely this is a dream or a practical joke.

How will you ever make the world a better place if you don’t imagine how it could be different?

My MFA thesis was kind of exactly that point!

We know, we read it. It’s part of how we determined you were sincere.


A new lease on life, literally

In mid-December I made one of the biggest changes I could to make my life better: I signed a lease on a new apartment.

To back-track a bit, I’d been more or less living out of a suitcase, storage bins, or Space Bags since the end of May, when I went to New Jersey to care for my parents’ dogs while they were in Ireland. Then I went to London, then spent my summer holiday in New Jersey, then I took a 4-day trip to Paris, then I moved completely out of my apartment in Staten Island, then I spent a month in Paris, and then I was supposed to go to Hong Kong and instead lived with my parents for a few weeks while they were renovating their kitchen… you get the idea. A few apartments fell through before I found this one, and though I was devastated about each one, I see now that it was all absolutely and without question for the best.

I ended up finding a really lovely apartment on the 1st floor of a sweet old building in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. The rooms are generously sized, and because I got a 2-bedroom, I have an entire room set up as a painting and exercise studio!!! (Also umm, some shoe storage).

I keep meaning to take these artsy, Architectural Digest-y photos of my apartment in gentle afternoon sunlight, but for now I’ll just say it’s lovely and colorful and perfect. My parents and brother (who remain the kindest and most generous people in all the land) came up on the one unseasonably warm day of February to help set up the rest of the furniture and stuff that really made it a home.

And possibly best of all, my new home is about 40 minutes door to door from work. 40 minutes!!! The total amount of time I spend commuting both ways each day is still less than one way of my previous commute. And there are no boats, just one subway without transfers. I feel like I hit the jackpot.

I’m still getting to know the Bronx, but I love it intensely already. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors, I’m excited to go to the Bronx Zoo, New York Botanical Garden, and to get fresh mozzarella on Arthur Avenue. My subway stop is on the B/D or the 4, so I can get to the east and west sides easily, and I’m truly enjoying being like 4 stops from the Met or Lincoln Center.

I made myself the deal that I would be happy and healthy here. I am working to make my life better in a lot of different ways, and I’m genuinely hopeful for what the future holds. It’s been a problematically long time since I’ve felt that way, but it is so great to be on the other side.

Occupational escapism and bright skies

I once read an article about liberal arts colleges’ inability to prepare students for careers (of course I’ve lost track of the source and vehemently disagreed with most of the thesis anyway). The author took a dig about how it’s this baffling time where we tell students that their most important task every day is to read books, then we wonder why they show up to the workplace with no real job skills.

It has been my experience that a liberal arts and straight-up arts education has been invaluable in my career, and even though I will be paying for my degrees for the rest of my life, I have never regretted any of my education for even a moment.

I talk a lot with friends about how much I love my job, but I realize that if they’re mostly hearing stories about shipping and logistics and working super late, it may not come across as such a dreamy experience that a girl could have such a crush on. One friend asked me if I regretted not pursuing a career that used my degrees, and I was flummoxed because honestly, I draw on my experiences and education every single day.

As I tried to think of a way to explain the intricacies of how and why I love my job, I hit on something crucial: this job is the only one I’ve ever had where the principle guiding force behind decisions is purely aesthetic. Working in art or science, I saw again and again where vision got cut short and compromised by funding. At my job, the question is almost never about the bottom line, but more, “What is the most elegant and beautiful way to do this?” When you work with objects as important and unique as the ones that make their way across my desk each day, everything in support of them gets elevated. It is a privilege just to be there, let alone to play a daily role in making it run.

I can’t help but contrast the experience of being so immersed in design and luxury with times when I was working in A/R or retail while the store was struggling. I spent my days fretting over purchase orders and invoices, then went home to fret over my own finances. I had the very distressing impression that I would spend my entire adult life shuffling papers, reconciling balance sheets that never added up in our favor, and marveling at the way interest accrued so mercilessly. Part of what motivated me to go to art school was the certainty that I just wasn’t cut out for chasing money. If I was going to be poor anyway, I figured at least I could have beauty in my personal life.

But now, work is a holiday for me. Our office has the same rarefied atmosphere of my favorite museums and galleries, where you can actually feel the reverence and consideration for the pieces. I spend my days in a world where money is no object and the most prized commodities are proportion, purity, and vision. Whatever mood or weight I may walk in carrying, it almost always dissipates when I see a particularly beautiful photo, the way a stone catches light, or a designer’s sketch from 1925 of a bracelet that I’m holding in my hand.

This year my job took me to London and Paris already, and I’m returning to Paris for another 3 weeks this September. Just after that, Hong Kong. (I promise, we’ll talk about all this stuff soon.) I feel so incredibly grateful and happy at my job that sometimes I worry I will wake up and learn it was all an elaborate, exquisite dream.

When I had to leave school two years ago three semesters shy of a chemistry degree (for financial reasons, of course), I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. At the time I chose to interpret it as the universe telling me I was supposed to be on another path, but I was skeptical that it was really an opportunity and not just piss poor luck. Today I mentioned to someone that I never would have gotten my wonderful, lovely job if I hadn’t been looking at exactly that moment in time. And if I hadn’t been so fiercely motivated to keep from losing my apartment, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to apply for this job.

For maybe the first time since I was a child, when I think about the possibilities for the future, they actually seem limitless. It is genuinely exhilarating.

I am trying to make my life better

Aristide Maillol, Air, 1932, lead. Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, France.

Recently I heard an interesting metric for how busy one’s life has gotten when an architect said, “I can gauge how I’m doing by when I was last able to sit and watch a TED talk.”

I laughed that it was definitely more than a year for me and honestly longer than I could remember, by any metric, since I’d felt calm and like I had a decent stretch of free time to focus on my personal life. I mean, I’ve been trying to write this post since April.

Like most jobs, mine has times when it’s extra demanding and times where it’s a little calmer. Recently, it’s also started to include international travel, which is awesome beyond words (and of which, much more later), but also quite time-consuming. Right now I’m in the midst of one of the more demanding phases, which means working until 7:30 or 8 most nights has become problematically normal.

When I took a long hard look at my life this winter, work wasn’t the problem (I seriously love my job). More than anything, it’s been my commute. On a good day, it’s 2 hours each way. Frequently it’s closer to 2.5-3 hours or more. There have been times that I’ve gone to the opera and the journey home was longer than the performance. Times. More than once.

I love riding a boat as part of my commute, and I have mostly really enjoyed living in Staten Island, but I seriously can’t spend the rest of my 30s grumpily waiting in the Whitehall Ferry Terminal and wondering what it might be like to have time for a boyfriend and hobbies again. I hit my breaking point this spring, and I texted my mother, “If I ever seem to falter in my resolve to move out of Staten Island, please remind me of this night and the way it made me feel about my life.”

Moving in New York City is its own special kind of hell, and I’ve made it additionally challenging for myself because I’m flying to Paris like two days after my current lease ends (and I have an enormous amount of stuff to do at work in preparation for that trip). It was so tempting to just renew my lease again and suffer through another year of miserable commuting, but I’ve been repeating a mantra since February: I am trying to make my life better.

Every frustrating appointment with brokers, every stressful rehashing of logistics to organize the move, every time I want to curl up in a ball and cry or convince myself that maybe some people just don’t get to be happy:

I am trying to make my life better.
I am trying to make my life better.
I am trying to make my life better.

It is so, so hard to make one’s life better, but I know that when I get 4-6 hours of my life back every day (or at least 3-5) I am going to be so much calmer, healthier, umm, fitter, happier, more productive… It’s totally gonna be worth it.

Maybe I’ll even find time for some TED talks.

Racism is alive in Staten Island

This weekend I watched The Help with my mother (excellent movie, highly recommended) and afterwards got in a discussion of what it must have felt like to live during a time when systematized discrimination against a specific race or group of people was not only tolerated, but actively enforced as the status quo. We agreed that the US really hasn’t come as far as we’d like to believe, and we talked quite a bit about the instances of overt and more pervasive, institutionalized, or subtler forms of racism we’ve both seen.

“I’m so glad I live in New York,” I said, “it feels like we’re always a few decades ahead of the rest of the country, in terms of respecting each other and understanding how people should get along.” Smugly I added, “it feels good to be on the right side of history.”

Now I am choking on the irony, as I must completely eat my words.

© Associated Press, Segregation of Buses in Atlanta, The Freedom Mosaic

I lugged a suitcase back from New Jersey with me today, so I decided to take the bus home from the ferry. Our ferry was slightly delayed by the high winds and reduced visibility of an impending thunderstorm. A number of passengers were rushing up the ramps to catch buses, and I saw the driver of the S42 close the doors, then reopen them to let two white women and then myself on board. The driver slammed the doors shut the moment my suitcase had cleared the bottom step, and she accelerated so suddenly away from the curb that I nearly fell over as I inserted my MetroCard. The driver then slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the bus that was departing in front of us.

I looked through the door to see a black man about my age, wearing a suit and a white collared shirt. He looked as mystified as I felt about why the driver had shut the doors in his face when he was right behind me in the bus queue.

We idled behind the bus that had departed in front of us, then waited for the traffic signal at the end of the ramp to change, behind several cars and another bus. As we were barely ten feet clear of the bus ramp, the man had walked up to the door and asked the driver to let him on. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I saw him pantomiming about the imminent rain, how he didn’t have an umbrella, and he didn’t want to ruin his suit.

Other passengers encouraged the driver to let him on, saying the sky was about to fall out and we weren’t even moving. The driver said he could take the next bus (which would be in 15 minutes) and that “that stupid fool” ought to get out of the road so he doesn’t get hit by a car.

The bus proceeded around a curving road and the next two stops, then turned back toward the road that extends out of the ferry terminal ramp. The man had evidently run uphill on one of the one-way side streets to meet our bus at the third stop on its route. He stepped aside to let passengers exit out of the front door of the bus, then the driver shut the doors rapidly on him again before he could get a foot onto the step. The other passengers on the bus burst out into an uproar, asking what the hell the driver was doing. One woman said, “Oh come on, after he ran up this big hill, you’re going to be that mean? That’s just hateful!”

The man again looked perplexed, and the passengers around me said she would never do that to a white man.

“He’s not some saggy pants-wearing street type, he’s a good working man, he’s wearing a suit! Don’t treat him like that!” another woman yelled.

The driver said that she had the right to deny service to anyone she wanted and that she “didn’t like the look of him.” She accelerated again so quickly that several passengers fell off their balance, and she had to swerve and slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian and a car in front of us.

Amazingly, the man caught up to the bus again, and the driver let passengers off and closed the doors in his face a third time. By this point it was clear that everyone on the bus believed the driver’s denial of service was racially motivated. Several passengers told her they would be making complaints, and they took down her license number and information. They even tried bargaining with her, saying they wouldn’t complain if she would just let the man on the bus so he could get home already.

My stop was the next stop, and I took my time with my suitcase on the back steps, looking down the street to see if the man had been able to catch up to us again (I didn’t see him). As I was walking into the gates of my apartment complex, one of my neighbors who looked a few years younger than me leaned in confidentially to say, “I wouldn’t have let him on.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, not fully registering what she had said.

“You were on the 42 bus, weren’t you? That black guy?” she said.

“Oh yeah, that was nuts,” I said, worried where her tone was going.

“I’m just saying, with black guys like that, if they get angry? I wouldn’t have let him on either. Who knows what he’d do?”

“Yeah, umm, I don’t know,” I stammered, giving her a doubtful look and wondering if this was how all the other white passengers felt.

Did the other outraged passengers on the bus read my less vocal upset and expression of discomfort as some kind of support for the driver? Are white people actually super racist and I’ve just been deluding myself??

I was so furious at the driver and the way she made this man feel, intentionally or not, that I wrote every detail in a formal complaint letter to the MTA as soon as I got home. I have a hard time believing she pointedly denied him service three times for any reason other than his race.

I’ve regularly seen drivers wait for a passenger running down the street to catch a bus, I’ve seen them let people on at the end of the ramp at the ferry terminal, and I’ve seen them stop partway down a street when they realized someone was trying to catch a ride. I’ve seen drivers have so little regard for sticking to their schedule that they’ve made a queue of people wait an extra five or ten minutes in sub-zero temperatures so they could finish their cigarettes and have the full break they wanted. I’ve never seen a driver work so hard to outrun a passenger that she would endanger everyone else on her bus driving recklessly between stops, and I’ve never seen someone so utterly unconcerned with letting a whole bus believe she was denying service to a black man just because she could.

I don’t realistically imagine anything will come of my complaint letter, but I needed this man’s experience to be written down and to go on record somewhere. I needed the outrage that everyone on the bus felt at what seemed like flagrant racism to be expressed.

We may not have formal segregation anymore, but we still have a long, long way to go.