Susanna Salk


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Barn House Blog #1
Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Day One of the Barn House renovation:
The former owner- whose family has occupied the property since the 1880s- vacates this humble yellow house where he raised 2 daughters since 1980. He calls on our landline which never rings anymore and I happen to pick up : he wants to gives me the meter box numbers to the electricity to switch over to our name. As I take down the numbers I realize the reality of what we have done. The fantasy of buying the dream property literally next door is now transforming itself into things that are our responsibility now. He is a steely lawyer who suffers no fools. However his voice is softening, the way when the lake unfreezes in March. I ask him how he feels and he says: “Strange. I’ve never seen the house empty before.” His children have now grown and soon he will leave the keys on the kitchen counter for us and drive to North Carolina where he has purchased a new home and retire. Eventually I will have to leave my keys on the counter for whomever buys our current house. And so will the people who buy our house to their house and so on and so on. We bond more over this than we ever have as neighbors in seven years. His home will ultimately become a modern guest house to a barn style house just up the hill that will be our main house. Right now it’s an empty barn from the 70s, its floors drenched in bat shit and slates of sun pouring through the broken glass windows. The only furnishing is a rotted bookshelf full of titles like “Understanding Russia” and “Arabian Nights.” Their dusty print is so minuscule it’s like another language. I stand and imagine where our new fireplace is going to be and where the sofas are going to be and how someday I hopefully will sit on them and read my iPad and look through the renovated windows to the yellow house -now painted another color -where my sons will hopefully live when they visit and their children and so on. It’s one continuous chain. And in order for it to flow, change must come. “Please visit,” I tell him before hanging up. #barnhouseblog



House Trained
Thursday, December 8th, 2016

I should have seen it coming. Two new rugs in our bedroom. Three dogs. You see already where this is headed and yet you continue to perhaps read with the same faith I possessed upon buying them and believing that their integrity would remain intact. (The rugs, not the dogs.) “You got shag ones,” my husband pointed out to me as though I had been blindfolded and forced to purchase them at gunpoint. “They think it’s grass.” And while he definitely wasn’t defending them, (the dogs not the rugs) he was reiterating- the way you do to someone who continues to walk into a glass door- that the plush-like feel of our rug was inspiring our dogs to pee with abandon as though we were living like a frontier family out on the open plains of the Wild West. Our dogs are house trained. And I’ve sen them hold it in for great lengths of time. I’ve walked miles in the cold, hard rain, encouraging them to let it fly but they won’t stop for a beat. After driving all the way home I tuck myself into my sun-filled bedroom which doubles as my office and suddenly, like it’s intermission at a Cats matinee, the dogs scamper in after me and treat each square like its their own stall and the house lights are flickering urging them to hurry back to the show.
“Are you kidding me?!” I’ll often shout and they just look blink at me, defiant yet polite.
I run to the bathroom, grab my designated sponge, spray bottle of trusty “Zero” and get down on my hands and knees and immediately eliminate any smell in hopes they won’t remark. Ironically, this always leaves an even greater wet mark, so that when my husband comes home and dampens his socks walking across the rugs, he inevitably will ask me if the dogs have, yet again, peed upon them.
In the morning, after I feed them and they’ve have a good hour of romping outside (their equivalent of Starbucks) I often come out of the shower to the sight of one of the dogs back on the rugs, mid squat (Tink, the girl) or mid lift, (Cheddar, the male). The worse is when I don’t catch them doing anything at all: they are curled sleeping around me and all is well in the world until….I get a whiff. I know then it has already happened: when I wasn’t looking or left the room, someone squeezed one in. I jump up and grab my bottle and spray (I might as well them around my waist like a tool belt, to be ready at all times or how I even wished for some light saber-like weapon I could simply wave in the air and the spot would magically evaporate) and then get down on my hands and knees and start sniffing to find the exact area of infraction. Sometimes I imagine the dogs quietly snickering to themselves while I, butt in air, have my nose pressed deeply into the synthetic pile sniff like a truffle pig on steroids.
But they would’t do something so premeditative and naughty would they? They are good dogs, wonderful dogs.
I keep returning to my husband’s comment about the grass. My craving for a chic, polished modern rug has triggered a primitive reaction and it is not their fault. So the battle continues, a push-me-pee-you affair that seems to feed on itself ad infinitum. For a short awhile, I thought human research and civilization would be the victors: I would simply out maneuver their moves with my technology (at $30 a bottle from PetSmart) After all, a dog and traveled to the moon but man had built the rocket ship and eventually landed on it themselves.
Then slowly, I could see the shift move in their direction…the rugs, while cleaned to every inch of their fibrous lives, were starting to take on scents that, while not pee, almost smelled as bad as pee. I’d add a dash of expensive cologne to try and cover them, but a third equally offensive smell was then born: a smell that reminded me that my dogs were still peeing.
Today something clicked- no snapped- as I tried to ignore its gushy scents. I suddenly rolled each rug up and pushed them down the stairs. Soon I’d haul them to Goodwill. For now, I enjoyed a brief repose at the top of the stairs. It was over. The dogs clustered around me and we stared at the rugs, as if we were on the prow of a ship and watching our wake float pleasantly behind us.
I suddenly felt a wet mark on my ankle. Tink was licking it affectionately with her tiny pink tongue. I stood up and looked at three tails wagging at me. Then I said “Now: who wants to go for a walk?”



Remnants
Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

I still see women like her all over the Upper East side, holding a few too many shopping bags, some from stores that have long since closed. The traces of a privilege childhood and dissolved marriage linger on their faces like dinner guests who don’t want to go home to an empty house.
I met Jeannie during the summer of my junior year at college and while at the time she seemed of an indeterminate age with her blonde page boy hair cut, apple cheeks and squat little body, she was likely no older than 40. Our paths had literally first crossed in Nantucket: she was barreling down Main Street in a large group and bumped into me: wearing an oversized Mickey Mouse t-shirt, white jeans and holding a gin and tonic between fingers full of beautiful rings, she told me had inherited from her grandmother when I admired them. She hugged me as though we had both won a game show and told me I reminded her of a niece of a brother she no longer spoke to. Her eyes welled as she began to explain before being jostled away by the herd. We continued to run into each other in the ensuing summer weeks: on people’s boats, at the beach (she tucked a large pink towel around her entire body, explaining: “No one is seeing what’s underneath this anymore!” ) One time I found her crying at the back of a bar because her boyfriend had gone off to another party without telling her. As she hugged me, the top of her head smelled like fruit. I realized it was coming from the wedges in her drink she clutched in one hand.
When I needed a place to crash in Manhattan while looking for a job she insisted I stay with her for a few days. “I’m in the right neighborhood,” she said as if that’s all there was to it. She lived in a dignified yet small building off of Lexington Avenue in the 70s. As the doorman buzzed me in, I fleetingly entertained an image of me coming home after a glamorous day at the office, to join my husband at cocktail hour before a fire. Jeannie lived there with her teenage son, his father and her ex-husband no longer in the picture or even mentioned, his absence like silt on a window obstructing what could otherwise have been a glorious view. Jeannie had been a model in her twenties and for a very brief time, an actress in a Broadway show. On the day that I arrived she was flush from a visit downtown, wrapped like a prize fighter in a mink coat having asked the producer of the show to see if he would lend her money to help pay for her son’s prep school education. As she recounted her encounter to him with me, I could see how the coat’s sleeves were too short but she looked fearless just the same and I believed in her cause. She showed me her old Playbill and kept repeating: “I was here, don’t you see? I was here!” I nodded, even though I wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
She was leaving that night for her boyfriend’s house in the Hamptons and she insisted I take her bedroom. I lay down that night in her bed, unsure of what I was doing the next day. For a moment I pretended my husband was about to lie down next to me and that our wonderful son slept down the hall. On a handsome antique bureau sat a cluster of silver-framed pictures: one of Jeannie as a child on a lush lawn by herself and another of her dancing in a white dress and gloves with an older man. Below I could see that one of the handles on the top drawer was missing. And below that, another. I walked over to admire the oil paintings on the wall until my eye settled on water mark stains blooming on the floral wallpaper above them. In the corner was a box full of large unopened bottles of Evian. I got into her bed and pulled the worn Porthault sheets closer.
The next morning, as her son and I awkwardly stood in the kitchen as though we were siblings, I asked if the water was safe to drink. “Oh absolutely,” he said from underneath his bangs. I explained about the Evian bottles. “When my dad and she first moved into the apartment they were doing a bunch of work and had no water for like a week so my father arranged this delivery service for her.”
“How long ago?” I asked as causally as I could, as if by knowing, it would set back the clock, reverse anyone and anything who had ever crossed the threshold and not come back home.
“Before I was born,” he said, handing me a bowl already filled with what looked like Rice Krispies. He then poured the milk over them, sloshing it slightly, so that the liquid almost keeled over the sides until I righted it just in time. Then, like we had been doing so all our lives, we both sat down. I never saw Jeannie again.



What Would Hillary Do?
Sunday, February 21st, 2016

As these things go it was small. But like a paper cut, its unexpected slice was swift and surprisingly sharp.
I can’t call it an assault. I was not touched. Sexual harassment is closer but it did not involve a colleague. It was more than a quip and a cousin to the insult. To many generations of men and even perhaps women, his words would have been deemed friendly if not downright complimentary and I, as their bearer, as being too sensitive.
And that was the most frustrating part. A woman could very well be our next president, yet still a 92 year old man’s targeted words made me feel as primitive as dirt.
It was at a tennis club where I hit once a week during the winter. He was dressed in warm up suit but clearly only there to watch his male cronies play. He sat facing a wall of windows that looked out onto the courts.
As I entered, I noticed his frail frame out of the corner of my eye tracking my arrival. When I came out of the locker room in a tennis skirt, he had fully shifted to face me. I could almost smell his intent as I headed down to the courts.
As a woman, starting at about age thirteen, you become skilled in priming yourself to the various ways men receive your presence. It has very little to do with beauty and much to do with age. I remember as a young teen suddenly getting a whistle when I walked by some men after buying my first pair of heels and my mother congratulated me. Soon after, I got used to crossing the other side of the street when I saw a construction site coming. In college, on my way walking to an off campus party, a bunch a teenagers on bikes sped towards me and one of them jumped off and grabbed me. I instinctively kicked him hard and high between the legs and surprisingly, the group pedaled off.
Later to my date, I shouted over the throbbing party music what had happened or worse, what could have. He listened and then handed me a beer. I took it, ready to enjoy my evening, strangely calm.
At my first big movie pitch in Los Angeles with my female colleague- who also had blonde hair- we walked into a conference room and were greeted by a man in his sixties with: “So let’s hear what the blonde bookends have to say!”
Little instances like this- and every woman has had her share in varying degrees- had indeed dissipated as I had gotten older but, like the lack of oxygen felling even the best climbers to a halt atop Mount Everest, there is never such a thing as easy acclimation.

“Hello Legs.” I pretended I couldn’t hear him. His friends had now come off the courts and were gathered round him.
“I said: HELLO LEGS!” His voice had a tear of annoyance through it now like a run in a stocking. I looked up and he was grinning, scanning me up and down.
“I heard you,” I said and gripped my racquet more tightly.
“Uh oh, Bob, you’re in trouble!” One of his peers teased and the group laughed along.
Then Bob mumbled a joke that ended with the phrase, “Did you get a happy ending?”
“I don’t appreciate being addressed that way. It’s wrong!” I chided and then hurried down to the court, for some reason thinking of when Donald Trump made fun of Hillary Clinton for going to the bathroom during a debate.
To say I played out of my mind that day is an understatement. As I left the club, I told the owner what happened. He kept his eyes down as he strung a racquet. “Someone needs to please tell this guy he can’t do that,” I said. The woman at the reception desk was listening carefully but she said nothing.
The following week Bob was there again. He spun around in his seat to receive my approach.
“Hello Gorgeous!” I nodded in response and he repeated the greeting, more loudly. Calm down, I told myself: isn’t this better than calling you “Legs?”
The next week Bob was not at the courts but an elderly gentleman was waiting for me as I got off mine.
“Look, Bob’s my best friend and the only thing he gets out of bed for all week, is to come watch us play. But I told him he couldn’t come today because I felt badly what happened to you the other week.” He explained.
“Did you tell him why?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I was scared. I don’t want it to hurt our friendship. You see we are from another generation. He thinks he’s just being friendly. And he forgets.”
“You understand it’s not like he’s asking me for the time of day repeatedly.” I said, feeling like we were both on sinking life rafts staring at each other across a vast ocean. “His comments, for lack of a better word, feel letchy. I don’t think you’d want your wife or your daughters to feel that.”
“He’s a great guy. He loves my daughters and he’s beloved by the community.”
“It seems small but it’s hard to explain how it feels when it happens to you-” I tried to counter.
“I feel responsible because I’m the one that brings him,” he continued. “I’m sorry.”
“He’s responsible,” I said. “If people don’t tell him how it’s wrong it just kind of enables the behavior.”
The image flashed in my mind of Chelsea Clinton walking across the White House lawn toward the awaiting helicopter holding her estranged parents’ hands on either side.
“Look,” said Bob’s friend. “Can we just try this? Can I bring him one more time and if he does it again just tell him to stop? I mean really lay in to him.”
An old man lying alone in a bed upstairs, life’s last pleasures being played out in a shoddy tennis club against my middle aged legs which were now shaking: was this really cause for a debate?
A ball suddenly rolled over and bounced off my ankle. A teenage boy playing on the last court gestured that it belonged to him. I gave the ball a targeted smack. He caught it with his free hand, then offered me a bow of appreciation.
“Alright,” I told Bob’s friend. “One more time.”



ROUTINE FILLING
Monday, January 25th, 2016

The other day while in the dentist chair, I was asked if I wanted to watch TV during my cleaning. I used the baby remote to scan through the horrific morning choices before eventually stopping at an HGTV episode where a young couple visits various houses for sale with the aid of a host (wearing a short teal dress and high heels) to guide them towards their best real estate choice.
The camera followed the couple – let’s call them Jim and Sue— clutching hands as they toured three houses, all in their price range. House One and Two I immediately knocked off the list as they had absolutely no character, merely offering cookie-cutter rooms with a rigid ability to ever go beyond what they had originally been designed for.
Over the dentist drill, I could hear Sue exclaiming how much she loved the built-in closet in House One and the HGTV host nodded and smiled. “But the master bedroom has no view and you’re in the country!” I exclaimed in my head. “A view is more important than a big closet.”
Jim, meanwhile, could imagine grilling on the patio on House Two especially since it wasn’t far from the shopping center where he could easily pick up whatever was needed. “But that patio feels like it was slapped on by a contractor that just wanted to flip the house, Jim: it has no relationship to the rest of the house or the yard!” I was clutching the hands in my lap in bursts as though trying to send him my message via morse code.
“We’re almost done,” the dentist said sympathetically.
Then came House Three: looking completely different than the other two, like a wildflower in a bunch of carnations.
It was a funky, rambling affair, its imperfect rooms floored by old wood and embraced by large windows on almost every side. Unfortunately the previous owner had left the heavy curtains and I could hear Sue commenting on the lack of light. “Just tell her to the take them off: there’s plenty of light!”
“I’m sorry, is it too bright?” asked my dentist. “Do you want to wear the sunglasses we provide?”
House Three’s wraparound porch stretched out like a lazy Saturday afternoon overlooking a lawn made for cartwheels and silly croquet. This was a house that had held lives that loved it and was ready to hold many more.
“Now this one,’” said the hostess with a tiny frown, “Does need a lot of work but that’s why it falls in your price range.”
I could see Sue looking in the master’s slightly small closet discouragingly. When I saw Jim’s face look discouragingly at the porch railing which was painted black, I knew it was over for House Three.
“We’re almost done,” the dentist said soothingly.
By the end of the show Sue and Jim were sitting on a very white porch somewhere clutching large goblets of white wine and clearly discussing the merits and disadvantages between all the houses.
“So what’s your answer?…” the host- who always seemed to be leaning in- asked them.
Sue took another big sip of wine and reached out to hold Jim’s hand.
The dentist was rinsing my mouth out with huge squirts of water and then placing a suction tube at my lips and asking me to hold on.
I could see the way the screen was flashing pictures of House One repeatedly that Sue had gotten her wish.
I sunk back into the chair resignedly. It was, after all, her choice, not mine.
I longed to use the remote to transport me back in time and look at House Three with my husband and boys and start a real estate journey all over again. For me it was always the very best kind work despite that there was no greater effort. The idea of it made me cringe with joyful and painful memories.
“Are you experiencing extra sensitivity?…” the dentist asked.
I paused, not sure of the best answer.



It’s Only A Stage
Sunday, January 17th, 2016

The word “staging” in real estate involves deliberate arranging of someone’s home to make it look as appealing as possible for a potential buyer. As a sometimes stager, my job is the opposite as to when I help someone as their designer: the goal is for rooms to look stylishly anonymous as opposed to stylishly personal.
Sometimes the rooms are empty and they need to be filled in order to give a sense of their potential: a rug, a sofa, a coffee table, a lamp. Maybe a picture or two on the wall, a tray for the table, a throw for the chair…you can see where it can be hard to draw the line and stop. Rooms tend to always look empty without that infusion of the real human.
If the project’s rooms already are filled then most likely they need to be edited. I have been hired to help sell their house and the owners have put an invaluable trust in my being not a friend, but an assessor as to what is no longer essential. Beloved pictures of children must be tucked away. Kitchen counters removed of that glorious accumulation that comes with years of cooking. Throw pillows wonderfully weary due to years of supporting naps and football game watching must be replaced with cheerful new versions. I am staging a pretend life over a real life in hopes of luring a real life to take over.
But along the way I’ve come to realize that the very word “staging” is even more apt in defining what is going on in the current owners’ lives: the literal stage of peoples lives where they are moving on for a variety of reasons, some exciting, some sad and all about change. The old stage must be packed and put away to make room— literally and metaphorically— for a new one. This is a process where I must always be clinical despite being a very emotional person. I have had to tell a couple to empty their hallway that was fabulously cluttered with years of travel memorabilia because it was simply too distracting. I wanted nothing more than to share a bottle of wine and hear the stories behind how they found every mask and painting but that was not why I was hired. When they told me that they understood that they had to sell their quirky brass bed for something with more alluring modern lines, I felt my eyes well up a little. They were ahead of me even on what was needed and where they had to go. When I showed them their transformed bedroom it was a strange sensation as it wasn’t really for them. (They were going to live in it on weekends until the house sold.) But the husband looked around at the spiffy black and white photographs I had placed on the walls and at the white modern bed with its colorful comforter cover and his eyes sparkled and he exclaimed: “It’s sexy!” Could I ever be as receptive if the time ever came for my own home change?
I’ve helped a recently widowed elderly woman put away many of the vestiges of her now too-large home after her husband died. Hundreds of items had to marked as being either moved, stored or kept while she continued to live there until it sold.
Wile we worked, she stayed in the kitchen, her tiny frame in the enormous space watching television, answering mail, valiantly staying out of our way even though the meaning of our very presence must have been heartbreakingly real. I kept an eye on her throughout the day, popping in to chat, ask her questions, permission or just see how she was doing. Finally, after a long day of overseeing packers and movers I was anxious to get home to my own family as I had to be there again early the next morning to finish.
As I went out the front door I noticed she had retired with her lap dog in her bedroom lounge chair and was looking out the window as the sky was getting darker. One of my helpers appeared and whispered: “You had wanted to move her lounge chair?” I had, to a more appealing spot closer to the entrance of the room. “Leave it,” I told him.



Making Room
Saturday, March 21st, 2015

MAKING ROOM
The Smiths, a couple in their mid seventies, recently hired me to visit their weekend home of over thirty years to tell them if I thought it worth changing. “We’ve been here for so long, we’ve forgotten if the house is right for us and need your help,” Mrs. Smith wrote me the week prior.
Usually I have an immediate instinct on what I feel is needed, like a dowsing rod bending in a direction of water buried deep below ground. Sometimes it’s about adding: bringing in a new piece of furniture with a bigger personality or wingspan. Sometimes it’s the mere move of an existing piece from here to there that can set off a miraculous chain of redistribution resulting in the space feeling refreshed. But most often my task is about taking away. “Do you really need three plastic water pitchers?” I once asked a couple who complained about not having enough storage space in their kitchen. (The bulky pitchers were taking up an entire shelf in the precious real estate to the right of the stove. Ninety minutes later I was headed for Goodwill with their blessing, a box of donated items they hadn’t realized they didn’t need.) The solving of such domestic minutiae is always deeply satisfying, like easily plucking a book from a high shelf for someone who is shorter.
But from the moment I walked into their gracious living room, brimming with books, family pictures, creaking wood floors and sun-faded curtains, I knew my task would not be quite so easy. The rambling old Colonial sighed as I toured it, each room offering me a mood rather than a problem: the outdated children’s rooms desperate to tempt the occasional grandchild who visited; the elegant yet lonely dining room ashamed of its diminished status and the grumpy butler’s pantry with its once orderly shelves now filled with mismatched china and old New Yorkers stacked across its counter. I went outside and walked through the overgrown garden. From here, I could see the Smiths looking at me through their window: he was standing right behind her, gently resting his still strong hands on each of her shoulders. She gave me a wave and the striped ribbon that held her white blond bob back jiggled merrily.
I thought of my father’s parents— now deceased— who had moved into a retirement community when they reached their eighties. They had had to whittle down the beloved home where they had lived most of their married life in Pittsburgh into several non descript rooms in a new ground floor apartment that was attached to other identical apartments out in the suburbs. As their aging needs expanded, their space reduced, until they lay in beds facing the other, spending most of their days reading Shakespeare aloud. I thought of my own long-married parents who just bought and furnished a luxurious apartment with the zest and pride of newly weds. I thought of a picture I had just seen of Paraguayan Anacleto Escobar and his wife on his 100th birthday. Having just been given a house for the first time in their lives by their village, they clutch each other in a kind of crazy joy I don’t think I will ever know. In the deep of my own bed at night I wonder who will help them if they need a new roof and then scold myself for being too practical.
I walk back inside: The Smiths are now in their kitchen, which boasts appliances from the Reagan administration. She is putting some flowers into an empty mayonnaise jar while he is making a grocery list, while chewing thoughtfully on a pencil stub. Classical music is wafting from a radio propped on a shelf that’s meant no doubt to hold cookbooks. I don’t announce myself, just yet for I yearn to watch them longer, not wanting to change a thing.



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Instagram Playground
Monday, January 19th, 2015

Did you notice that when Instagram updated its program recently, many of us lost “faux” followers with a sudden drastic drop (Justin Bieber supposedly 2 million) so that one’s current follower status was only real people actually interested in seeing your images? If asked, would I have chosen to stick with the much higher fake number of my followers? Let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t asked. Aren’t we all slightly addicted to that euphoric uptick when someone takes the time to say: I will follow your world? (On that dark day, a cartoon was posted around Instagram of Jesus consoling someone on a sidewalk saying: “I’m sorry, I know what it’s like to lose followers.”)
Another loss that happened when Instagram shifted into their new update mode: the inability to gage the exact count of one’s followers, such as 1,250. Now the box just says 1K. This was a little annoying, like the third grade teacher chiding you for counting your Valentines. In fact, Instagram really is one big playground: there are the popular people who seem to be living a much more glamorous life than any of us has a right to lead and then the rest of us scurrying behind taking shots of our dogs, shoes and coffee.
Then I read about an App that shows you exactly how many Instagram followers you have as updated by however many times a day/hour you want an update. So I bought it. Then I noticed a kind of creepy feature the App also offered, much like the very quiet girl who stood by see saw promising to tell you who she heard didn’t like you: a button to show you how many Unfollowers you had (in real time as they unfollowed) and WHO they were. I really hadn’t even considered this option and how it would make me feel. (Jesus would have no doubt immediately chided me for EVER clicking on that button. But of course I have.)
Why would you ever want to know who suddenly became disenchanted with your sunset image? What if you don’t know them? It still stings, like the boy in sixth grade you got to the dance with because you felt sorry for him for asking you all week and then he ends up dancing all night with your friend and suddenly you miss his attention. What if you know your Unfollower quite well professionally? Yes it has just happened to me and it’s awkward. They don’t know I have the App so they think their decision to disengage (most likely not given HALF as much thought as I am now giving it) is private and of course their every right. It’s not like I don’t unfollow people from time to time. Which makes me suddenly panicked: what if the people I unfollowed have the App too so that they know my actions? And what happens when we all see each other next? I imagine a New Yorker cartoon of floating cartoon thought bubbles above all our heads with the silent proclamations of “Follows Me,” “Doesn’t Follow Me.”
Will this all impact the pictures we post? Will I pre-edit in hopes I don’t offend/bore?
You know what your mother would say: she’s be saying it since your first day of kindergarden: just be yourself and others will like you. Then again, I can also hear Tara the most popular girl saying: “Oh you know why Susanna wrote this post. So no one will unfollow her now.” But it’s OK if you want to. Really.



Temporary Lodging
Monday, December 29th, 2014

What to do when your son asks you to make his dorm room artful?
To explain: “his” dorm room belongs to him in the sense that it’s his for three hours: he’s shooting a movie ( a feature length in four crazy days with a crew of other equally passionate twenty-something peers from film schools near and far) in the school he used to attend and where his younger brother now does.
I have been asked by him to help with the set design, a task I accept with professional enthusiasm even though squashing my maternal excitement behind it is like keeping the Tasmanian Devil in a broom closet.
I have approximately one hour before the crew and he descend into the cramped space with the three actors : a boy whose room this really belongs to (and whose cousin is the screenwriter and also an alum) a girl who also currently attends the school and during regular operating hours would not be allowed here and another seasoned graduate.
At eight am our footsteps echo through the stairway: only hours before the entire student body has fled for Christmas break. The now deserted campus— its regular purpose suspended— feels sleepy.
The dorm room as we find it is in your typical set up: bunk beds, cheap sofa, simple desks and window overlooking the gracious quad, but its standard issue was punctuated with several bits of exotica : a curtain made out of a Mexican blanket is partially pulled over the leaden case windows and perched above the rod is a giant white bone animal skull complete with antlers. We’re keeping these, I think immediately.
My task is to create a realistic non-reality out of reality. But why do anything? We needed a backdrop of a boys dorm room at a prep school for an intense confrontation scene and here it was handed to us: why change a thing?
Because this isn’t a documentary. A movie is a sequence of staged shots strung together to hopefully make a story that sucks you into its drama. The viewer wants their eyes to be tricked. In other words, it has to look like a more artful version of what it already is.
So the Carmen Electra in a bikini (shot from behind) poster had to go. It was too distracting. In its place I hang my husband’s vintage Coca Cola sign.
Will Ferrell from “Anchorman” also went (too blah) and a wooden tennis racquet and an old map hung in his place. (The character who is suppose to reside here being a worldly, intellectual type). I feel guilty, displacing these important vestiges of teendom and replacing them with their fake counterparts. A rap poster stays as does a movie poster for the movie “Shawshank Redemption.” We string some simple red Christmas lights as the scene calls for that time of year. Plugging them in behind a desk, I find a few discarded essay papers, complete with red teacher notes in the margins and I place them on top of the desk next to some books taken from Oliver’s real room at home.
As the screenwriter and trusty PAs help me separate the bunk beds to make more room for the crew, I have a déjà vu from when I did the same to my own dorm room years earlier to add distance from an annoying roommate.
I’m having such a good time that I don’t notice that Oliver has arrived with a gaggle of crew behind him. I have another memory flash: when I used to visit his own dorm room to grab his laundry and do a quick neaten up when he wasn’t looking. I’m tempted to say so many things to him now, about how proud I am and about how quickly time passes but I know better. So I step out of the way, my task complete. Several hours later, he calls me over to a huddled mass of people around a video monitor. “I just want you to see your work,” he says with an appreciative smile.
People separate and make room for me: I look at the frame. Even though it mimics what is only a few yards in front of my eyes, it feels far away and yet more intimate. Filled with the characters sprung to life inside it, the room is now a world and my props just glimpses into it, a complex compilation of sound, voice, movement and light. The Director of Photography turns to me and says: “The room looks good.”
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The Fifth Wall
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

While having intense dental work this morning, I spent a lot of time staring at a ceiling, starved for visual distraction. It would not surprise you to learn that my dentist— while incredibly cheerful— has a drab ceiling that no amount of nitrous oxide can ameliorate. A grid of putty panels, flecked with grey, I can’t begin to imagine the sales pitch from the ceiling company: “Now for your ceiling, which your patients will be spending most of their time staring at while you inflict them with sharp instruments, we offer several shades of lifeless hues…” A few years ago, while in for a routine cleaning, something radical happened: two of the panels were removed and a light box image of a blue sky background—one of flying kites, the other of some bougainvillea vines—were put in their place. Clearly meant to distract viewers with their fantasy-like diversion, they only served to remind me that care-free, cavity-free moments were currently not a reality. (How many of us dream of flying a kite as soon as we leave the dentist office? A bar sign would perhaps be a more appropriate lure.) As drill bits were being swapped in and out, I began to fantasize about how my ceiling would look if I were a dentist. It is the fourth wall, after all and its impact can not be understated, especially to those lying horizontally beneath it. I didn’t need pretty pictures: I needed a real ceiling. Properly dressed. I would have happily stared at a glossy version of Farrow & Ball’s Hague Blue for hours or endured more novocaine shots if I could have gazed at Manuel Canovas’ orange and pink Bengale pattern instead or romped with Scalamandre’s iconic zebras until every tooth was replaced with a crown. Escape, after all, doesn’t necessarily come with pretending to leave the room, but in the dreaming that comes when beauty has been found within it.