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A Place Called Home: Is It Where You’re From Or Who You Are?

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The Cabinet of Curiosities, Steffen Dam, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

The Sultanette revisited this pesky question last week upon returning to her hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. You’re shocked that such a worldly dame hails from the land of curds and corn fields? Not only that, yours truly cut a swath from Our Lady Queen of Peace Elementary and Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart to the godless University of Wisconsin before loading up the U-Haul and hitting the road. Chicago, New York, Paris. Any place but home.

So I was especially interested to read the Janan Ganesh Lunch with the FT interview with writer Edna O’Brien upon my return [FTWeekend 15 July/16July].

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University of Wisconsin, Madison.

O’Brien fled craggy County Clare in the west of Ireland where she was taught by the Sisters of Mercy and raised by parents who banned the study of literature so she could concentrate on becoming a pharmacist. In response, she married a novelist, moved to London and became a writer. The closest she came to pharmaceuticals was dabbling in LSD.

Ganesh notes that her novel The Country Girls shocked the decorous fifties with its “scandalous insinuation that women quite like sex.” It concerns girls who escape a rural convent school for “a life of swish new clothes and romantic escapades in Dublin.”

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Bucky watches over Bascom Hill, UW Madison.

Not every country girl (or boy) who abandons the urge to stay mired in the expectations of others needs to escape to the big city. But geographical distance can help pave the way to self-discovery. Then again, you can blame home for not becoming who you are – wherever you are.

Referring to O’Brien’s 2012 memoir, Country Girl, Ganesh wonders if “pride in her defiance of those who sought to contain her – parents, church, spouse – vies with regret at her slowness to act.” She might have stood up a bit more in her early life, O’Brien responds, “but all things considered I was pretty brave … I would say, as regards my inner self, I am happier than I ever was … I am full of darkness, but I am also full of light.”

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State Street, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which brings me back to the Madison walkabout. It was the kind of peacock-blue, cloudless-sky summer day that Wisconsin flaunts just to prove it isn’t all about twenty-inch snow drifts. My mission was State Street, that great street of boozing and schmoozing – main artery between the Wisconsin State Capitol where governing actually gets done, and the Library Mall where student protestors in the sixties did their best to undo it.

My excuse for returning was a high school reunion. The real reason was to crawl into the attic of my past and blow dust off the photo albums of my mind – research for a forthcoming book that weaves my life with a French woman writer who kept appearing in it. (If you’re patient and behave, you’ll all get autographed copies.)

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Eau de Rotunda, State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin.

Since my hotel was closer to The Square I ducked inside the capitol first, my nostrils hit with the pungent aroma of the rotunda. Whatever that fragrance is – a mélange of musty 1917 state ledgers, floor polish, and aging cheese – it has been a sensual sensation since I was knee-high to a Badger. But enough childhood nostalgia. Time to trace the path to losing my virginity – or innocence anyway – when you’re raised Catholic, the hymen is last to go.

The nucleus for the 40,000-plus students at the University of Wisconsin campus is Bascom Hill, credited for giving every Wisconsin co-ed well-developed calf muscles. Since the beer and boys were at the bottom and classes were at the top, scaling it was a dally prereq. It was steeper yet shorter than I remembered, but memories of ascending it with a hangover in minus-twenty degrees worked up a hunger, so my next stop was State Street Brats.

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Condiments galore at State Street Brat, Madison, Wisconsin.

Curd basket anyone? Or the famous SmokeHaus BBQ Red Brat? Predictably, I chose the Ribeye Steak Sandwich “char-grilled to perfection” and delivered open-faced in case you doubted that it was extravagantly marbled with veins of fat guaranteed to slick the fingers with a coating of grease.

With blood coagulating in my veins, I headed back out to join the strollers and street musicians. In the 0.5-mile length of State Street I came upon a girl fiddling at “Madison’s Happiest Corner,” a guy strumming a guitar, a white-bearded unrecovered hippie playing the flute, and a bare-chested kid in shorts and shades playing a ukulele like it was 1999. Does Madison know the world has moved on from hippies and jamming on the street? Or does it choose to retain the endearing quality of living big and staying small?

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Optic Twist Screen #2, Andy Paiko, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

When I moved on to the Chazen Museum of Art, I learned it contains 20,000 works that include “a diversity of world cultures and representative examples of the entire spectrum of art history.” There within its cool, clean galleries with floor-to-celling glass walls I came upon Andy Paiko’s blown glass installation, “Optic Twist Screen.” Its natural backdrop was created by the blue wash of distant Lake Mendota, one of five miniature lakes that make up the city’s character. I had experienced those lakes as a little girl with sand bucket at the local beach, and canoeing off the University pier, high on local pot with college mates.

What was happening to me? This place I couldn’t leave behind fast enough was provoking feelings bordering on sentimentality! Evoking an appreciation of a canny Madison modus operandi that appears to have weathered a world gone cynical and narcissistic. Did I pack some of that in the U-Haul when I fled?

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Madison’s Happiest Corner.

My final stop was the southern tip of State Street at the Library Mall – that campus landmark where the National Guard once fired tear gas on kids protesting war, civil rights, chemical companies, a country that could no longer believe in itself. I climbed onto the cement ledge in front of the Memorial Library (4,000,000 visitors every year) and watched students drift by on their way to summer classes.

A girl approached in T-shirt, cut-offs, flip-flops. The T-shirt read, “If it feels good …”. I waited for her to walk by, eager to see what clever punch line would greet me on the back. What aphorism I could take with me to New York. But there was nothing on the other side. I would have to find the answer myself. I sat on my ledge and soaked in the sun. Full of darkness. But also full of light.


Love And Marriage? Or … Lovers And Marriage?

Marriage Bared, José Reyes Guillén, 2007.

I almost abandoned The Lovers at the AMC Loews Cinema when I learned I had to choose a designated seat. I stared at the offerings on the screen the ticket-seller swiveled at me. How would I know, I asked him, if the seat I chose was not behind the woman with big hair, or next to the guy smacking down a tub of popcorn, or in front of the ladies offering continuous commentary on the action? He looked at me blankly.

Choose! I had to choose! Is nothing left to chance? To his relief, I chose Seat B3 and headed up the escalator. I told the friendly girl who looked like she would have preferred any option to ripping tickets on a sunny afternoon in New York City, that if I’d known this was a seat-assignment theatre I wouldn’t have come here and I was never coming back.

All Seats Reserved! FernandodeSousa
Melbourne, CreativeCommons.

With that I entered Theatre Number Four with my ticket marked Seat B3 and settled into Seat C7. The Sultanette has never been a fan of taking orders. Good news is the seat was a cushy leather affair with electronic adjustments. I buzzed into reclining position and settled in for the ride.

As it turned out, the AMC venue offered the perfect foreplay to The Lovers because it is all about choices – the ones we make, the ones we avoid making, and especially the ones we think we’re making.

Out of Tune, Allen Lai, CreativeCommons.

Mary and Michael, played with comedic precision by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, are long-married. Long past the resentment stage, the disappointment stage, the passion stage – too indifferent even to be bored with each other – they are tethered to the baggage of a remote past. In a reference to the piano parked in the living room that he once played back in the day, Michael says, “It’s way too heavy or it would be long gone.”

Instead of playing the piano, Michael has cultivated a pot belly. Mary’s neck is showing crepey signs of withdrawal from youth. Their house in Anywhere, California is decorated with framed memories, neatly grouped on vast blank walls. Every morning they dash around each other, separately slurping coffee before rushing off to work in cubicles. Michael stares at graphs on a computer and Mary sorts out stats for meetings in a glass-walled conference room, dressed for success but bored to death.

The Stolen Kiss, Jean-Honoré Fragonard c.1780, Hermitage.

Sound like fun? Or even familiar? Don’t abandon The Lovers yet because Michael and Mary are both involved in juicy illicit affairs with legitimate hotties. Michael does pliés with a supple ballet instructor, Susan, (Melora Walters). Mary tumbles with Robert (Aidan Gillen) a writer of impish charm. Can anyone blame them? (Well the New York Times did but that was just another of the paper’s retrograde cultural rants dressed up to look politically correct.)

When Mary and Michael aren’t indulging their libidos, they are concocting the intricate lattice of lies required to keep from getting caught – excuses that seem unnecessary since they both prefer to avoid each other’s company at all costs. This is brilliantly portrayed in a scene when fate brings them together for an evening.

TV Stattic & No Signal, Liz Sullivan, Creative Commons.

To his surprise and horror, Michael arrives home early to find Mary on the couch, staring at the TV with a glass of wine. After an awkward exchange – both searching for excuses to cover up for the lies they had originally made to see their lovers that night – Mary half-heartedly invites Michael to join her for a glass of wine. Their awkward attempt at mingling resembles kids on a first date. Except these two have spent a lifetime together.

No spoilers here, I promise! To see the provocative resolution you’ll have to go to the movie which The Sultanette highly recommends. For now let’s just say that director/writer Azazel Jacobs doesn’t let you take sides. None of the four lovers are bad or callous. They’re just lonely people with big, needy hearts. The lines between passion and a shared past, love and loyalty, promise and predictability are not neatly drawn. The affairs are more than sex. The marriage is more than routine.

Three Lovers, Géricault c.1820.

“Let’s do something normal,” Michael tells Susan one night, and next scene they are cuddling at a movie. When Robert and Mary playfully seduce one another, the sexual frisson is delicious. When feelings between Michael and Mary begin to stir, it’s more than a desperate attempt to make things right again. The comfort of normalcy, the delight of sensuality, the pulse of consistency – don’t we crave it all?

The beauty of The Lovers is that as in life, the choices aren’t always clear-cut. Sometimes you just have to sign up for Seat B3 and settle into Seat C7. When I left the movie, the friendly ticket-ripper said, “Have a nice day.”