Meditation on disappointment

Southside Pride and Pulse, August 2007

What do you do with enormous disappointment? What do you do when you just couldn’t have something you really, really wanted. I don’t know.

Rarely do I take big leaps—mostly to avoid disappointment, I suppose. But this time, since “I’m not getting any younger, and I may never have such an opportunity again,” I made the decision, which I’m really proud of, to do something crazy and completely outside the realm of my normal, sensible life style. And look what happened. The whole thing fell in a heap at my feet.

I was taking the advice of Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” That was exactly what I intended to do. It was expensive, it took a lot of effort, but I was up for the challenge. I felt so daring.

I don’t even know how to think about this. The year had already brought two huge disappointments—the death of Pulse of the Twin Cities and finding the orange ring around my last backyard elm tree. Now this, my truncated overnight trip to New York City, seems even worse than the other two.

Why was it so important to get to New York City on the night of July 10, 2007? It’s because I was personally invited to attend the opening of a show at the Museum of Modern Art. JoAnn Verburg, a wonderful photographer who lives and works in the Twin Cities and has done some important public art pieces here, was selected, in 2006, to have a show at the MoMA, and last spring I got to write a cover story about this consummate artist for Pulse of the Twin Cities. When it came time for the opening, she graciously sent me an invitation.

“Can I really go to NYC for one day?” I asked myself. Any artist person would understand why I wanted to go. How often do you get to go to an opening of a show at such a venerable institution as the MoMA? I felt honored, of course, but more than that, as curious as all get out.

If I just wanted to see the show, I could have planned to go on any weekend. That in itself would have satisfied my basic curiosity about what the show looked like, the geography of it, and how it felt, with JoAnn’s enormous, gorgeous photos displayed in enormous rooms—I love her photography, the largeness of it, her technical skill, her painter’s eye.

But my curiosity extended beyond just seeing the show—I was curious about the opening, itself. It was kind of like getting an invitation to Buckingham Palace, a chance to observe and interact with royalty. See how the other half lives. What would that be like? I’m such a campesina. How would people dress? What kind of folks would be there? I was interested in the whole question of elitism in art. How elite of an event would it be? How was JoAnn going to feel? Would she feel used by them, a means to an end? How crass, or how pure, would the whole thing be? I wanted to see how comfortable or uncomfortable I would feel at such an event.

I love art. I don’t mean just visual art. I mean all art. It feeds my soul. I can’t live without it. And I don’t believe anyone can, whatever a person might say to the contrary. We experience and perceive the world through our senses, from which all art is built. And we long to perceive and experience more than is possible for just one solo human. So, our souls need art.

I totally do not understand the whole world of art dealing and how it is possible that certain paintings can be “worth” millions of dollars. It is very exciting that there exists a group of people who arrive at a consensus about what is valuable and what isn’t. So maybe that’s all the money thing is about—the amount of money a painting is “worth” really means the degree to which it is approved by a whole bunch of people who really look at art down to its last detail and care about it deeply. Obviously, living artists need to be paid for their work so they can continue to make art. What I don’t get is paying millions for art by dead artists. Well, no, I changed my mind. I guess I do. It’s a way to control its whereabouts—so it doesn’t get thrown in the trash. It’s hard to imagine what would happen to great works if nobody stepped up and said, “I’ll give you $3 million for that so you don’t throw it away.” But why wouldn’t $100,000, or $10,000, do just as well?

I have to say I am rarely moved by art that displays no rigor, no craft. Works have to show a deep knowledge in order to convey something new. Great art transports me beyond the confines of my own perceptions. In a place like the MoMA, art energy converges into a critical mass. I wanted to be there.

My daughter convinced me we should bite the bullet, spend the money, make the huge effort that travel requires, and just do it. So we bought a package online, flying with a major well-known airline and staying in a highly-recommended two-star hotel in Queens.

We thought that leaving at noon from Minneapolis gave us plenty of time to get to the MoMA by 9 p.m. Wrong. Even when our flight didn’t leave until 1 p.m., I still thought there was plenty of time. Even when our flight got to Chicago much later than expected, I still thought there was time. Even when they told us our continuing flight to LaGuardia had been canceled, I thought there was plenty of time. Only when we started calling the re-booking phone number, and they started telling us there were no flights available, did I start to believe it might be the nightmare that it eventually became. There were some ups and downs in between, though. We passed through brief moments of hope.

A sympathetic woman at the re-booking counter found us a flight on United that was supposed to leave at 4:55 p.m. We thanked her profusely and walked the 15 minutes to Terminal 1, where we read on the board that our flight had been postponed to 5:45. Well, we could still make it, we thought. Then the torrential rains began. Our flight was postponed again, and then again. No one said exactly why there were no flights. It was probably the weather, but I couldn’t really believe that.

On TV in the airport we saw a report about this guy who traveled by lawn chair and helium balloons. He attached the balloons to his lawn chair and floated through the air. It was clear that getting to New York by lawn chair was as likely as getting there by airplane.

(This “trip” reminds me of the ONE time—as an adult—that I decided, out of keeping with my usual sedentary winter habits, to go sledding. I thought it would take me back to my wintry childhood. I was pretty excited. The first time down the hill, at Powderhorn Park, I hit a huge bump at the bottom, flew through the air, and injured my back, permanently. I never went sledding again. Am I destined not to try exciting, out-of-the-ordinary things?)

When we realized we couldn’t get to the MoMA by 9 p.m., not even by 10:30 p.m., NO WAY, NO HOW, and that our next-day flight from New York to Chicago, scheduled for 1:30 p.m., didn’t leave us time to even see the show in the morning, we decided to give it up. (We found out later that during the first few weeks of the show it was open to “members only,” so we wouldn’t have been able to get in anyway.)

(The 1964 film “Zorba the Greek” with Anthony Quinn came to mind. Zorba convinces his Englishman friend (Alan Bates) to build a sluice to convey logs to a factory that the friend owns. The friend invests his entire inheritance in the project. When the sluice comes crashing down as the first log goes flying through, all is lost. It’s a moment of bitter disappointment, but not for long. After that they start dancing the sirtaki and kind of just let it go. Life goes on.)

I took comfort in the most excellent sandwich I had brought from the Minneapolis airport D’Amicos restaurant and ate a very pretty yogurt parfait from the O’Hare Starbucks. That was MY “sirtaki.” Slowly, slowly, I’m letting it go. Life goes on.

The airline said they would refund us the unused portion of our flight, and give us a hotel voucher for future use (we’re still waiting), but our dilemma in O’Hare that night was of no concern to them. There was no flight back to Minneapolis until the next day. There was no Amtrak until the next day. There was the possibility of an expensive car rental made worse by the $4-a-gallon gas prices of that week, but we were both too worn out to try to drive all night. Our solution was to take the Greyhound bus, leaving from downtown Chicago at 9:15 p.m. We raced to catch the El from the airport and got to the bus station in time, with the help of a “tour guide” we picked up on the street.

The bus was packed to the gills. By the time my daughter and I got on, one out of every pair of seats was occupied, so we couldn’t sit next to each other.

I could understand that it was necessary to have the air conditioning on because of all the people, but it was nevertheless unpleasantly chilly. It helped that I sat next to a very large, warm person. We arrived in Minneapolis at 6 a.m. and walked to Nicollet Avenue to catch the bus to Lake Street and then another bus to my house.

What a night. I was stiff and aching for two days after we got back.

And the pain of missing the opening still smarts.

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