The NYC summer is in full swing and with warm-weather acres of flesh on parade, the streets and subways are a gallery of the tattooist’s art.

When I was a kid, spotting a tattoo on a NY beach usually meant you’d come across a Hell’s Angel, a Holocaust survivor or someone who spent most of his time at sea. Like so much else in the years between the Surgeon General’s Report and vaping, this changed. Rock stars (of course) led the way, with artists and chefs and a new breed of geeks hot on their heels. The tattoo renaissance became a tsunami: wave after wave of teens and young adults leaping to show that they too were unique, just like everyone else! And that first inky flower or flag or motto (frequently, dangerously, in a language the bearer doesn’t quite know) is only an ice breaker. With tattoos, like potato chips, it seems to be hard to have just one.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the craving to mark your exterior with an indelible symbol of something that’s burned itself into your soul. The main reason I’m not tattooed is that I’ve never felt a symbol that I could commit to. What I don’t understand is the compulsion to collect tattoos as if they were medals or merit badges. I write my life on pages, not on my body.

The other evening, I exited the subway directly behind a young woman whose sleeveless top and short skirt displayed barely an inch of bare skin. The images were large and bold, but neither elegant nor graceful, not particularly interesting at all except for the quantity. There was something that looked like a Chinese dragon and something else that resembled a playing card but wasn’t (a symbol from a Mahjong tile maybe?). There were a couple of miscellaneous floral and vine motifs. All perfectly competent but nothing more. I had to assume, therefore, that for her to have had so much of her body embellished, there must meaning in each image and a purpose to the overall design; and, because it was a drizzly rush hour and there was only the one stairway, I was stuck for two solid minutes with nothing to do but try to find it. From a purely visual standpoint, other than the red and black color scheme, it all seemed random. There were formless gaps between the images; no connective filigrees or hatching, no rhythm of line and curve in the placement, which seemed to have been selected purely according to the limits of the size and shape of her limbs. Surely there must be a story the young woman was trying to tell. An autobiography of sorts. There had to be, I thought, for someone to commit to covering one’s entire body with art that couldn’t be removed, not to mention the cost of the work in pain and money. I assumed I simply lacked the touchstones to interpret it.

I suppose you’re wondering why I didn’t just ask her what it meant. I both couldn’t and wouldn’t.

Couldn’t because of that bone-bred New York City thing whereby, once we pass the innocent age of 6 (or thereabouts), we learn to shrug and accept that there are more things than we have dreamt of in our philosophy and let our eyes skip past what we don’t understand. And wouldn’t because those two minutes thinking on the stairs had been enough to, pardon the expression, get under my skin. Could someone who didn’t look to be out of her 20’s truly have so much life to commemorate that she was already running short of skin to ink? Either she did, in which case I was jealous as hell of the richness of such a life; or she was faking it in a peculiarly extreme way, making her both pretentious and stupid, both of which flip my personal hostility switch.

Moreover, this walking collage was pushing my angry artist button. If you’re going to make a public display of art, it ought either explain itself or tickle a subterranean spring of emotions that make explanation unnecessary. Her body art did neither and yet, meaningless as it was, as she walked through the street, people were forced to see it.

Oh, that really made me fume! My blood boiled with the same flavor of resentment I feel for subway dance teams, and street buskers, and the kinds of painters and plastic artists who create images that can be viewed in a single glance. Audience envy! I don’t know how many hours it takes any of those artists to create a piece of work. Maybe it takes the same couple of thousand hours for them to nail that dance routine or paint that landscape as it takes me to write a novel. The difference is that, once their art has been created, they can make people hear it or see it. I can’t. Reading novels takes too much time: time, which is limited and already has too many demands on it. The painting is displayed on someone’s Facebook page, and people can gaze at it long enough to decide they “like” it in less time than it would take most of them to read a single page I’ve written. You walk by the busker, the music catches your ear, you stay for the whole piece—less time than reading a chapter. If people enjoy what they see or hear, they’ll listen to or view it again, or they’ll find something else of that artist’s to consume. You could listen to Mozart’s lifetime of music or view Van Gogh’s entire surviving output in less time than it takes to read a single novel.

My stories, although available to the world, aren’t accidentally brushed by but have to be sought, and demand hours of attention to consume. While, whether I want to or not, whether I understand it or like it or not, I exit the subway and take in the incomprehensible story written by a tattooed girl.

Taking a Powder

Why, when you suddenly want something you haven’t thought of for ages, is it always a surprise to find out it’s extinct?

This summer, my office is further away from my gym than in summers before. If I work out during lunch, there isn’t time to shower afterwards. Having only limited success in making the stiff gym towels absorb the sweat that pools under my boobs (the male and the flat-or-perky-chested have no idea what I’m talking about!), I find myself facing a long uncomfortable afternoon.

One day, ready to cry from a bra band rasping my ribcage like sandpaper, I had a vision from my childhood. Back then, before adult bathing evolved into its current state as an indulgence limited to mineral spas and whirlpools, and/or involving sports rehabilitation or aquatic sex, baths were as common as showers. Bath products were a popular gift for Moms, as well as an allowable quasi-cosmetic for pre-teens to dabble in. Drug store and dime store shelves were thick with floral-scented suites from soap companies, and name brands like Jean Naté, Love’s Fresh Lemon and Yardley Lavender. Women whose lifestyles were more sophisticated (though this well was before anyone said “lifestyle”) would be encouraged to “layer” their signature scent by surrounding their bathing experience with products that matched their carefully selected signature perfume. At any price point, bath product lines offered soaps, bubble bath or bath salts, bath oils, after-bath lotions and toning “splashes” (think after-shave for the body) and, my current craving, body powder.

Powder. The solution to all my woes!

That evening, I rummaged through my bathroom shelves and found I had some options on hand. One was a souvenir of a visit to New Orleans. It’s not surprising that a city where you can still buy bespoke parasols and any number of stunning hats would continue to pursue a dainty dryness in the face of heat and humidity. I’d purchased some lovely Hové body powder, fine grained and silky, after sniffing more than a dozen delightful options in their equally delightful shop. But as much as I like the scent, Bayou d’Amor has both too much Bayou and too much Amor for slapping on after the gym.  I also had a bottle of Lush’s Silky Underwear dusting powder. I’ve been using this for years, and love the feel of it against my skin. But the jasmine, like the Hové fragrance, lacks the refreshment factor that I’m pining for (pine; now there’s a scent I could go for right now!).

So I hit the drug stores in search of a solution. And quickly learned that body powder (like NYC dime stores) seems to have gone extinct. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it an endangered species. If you like smelling like a baby’s neck, or don’t mind trailing the bracing menthol of Gold Bond, you’re fine. But there were none of those neutral adult citrus or lavender notes I was hoping to find.

When shopping local fails me, I turn to the web for a source. Googling “talcum powder,” I found the reason for the holes in the shelves. The Big C. Having not had babies to powder, and for years not needing anything beyond Silky Underwear, I’d missed out on this scare; but the American Cancer Society notes that talc that contains asbestos has been proven carcinogenic. The jury appears to still be out on non-asbestos talc, but the industry has clearly had to do some major regrouping.

As I learned by next googling “dusting powder,” the fix was to trend towards cornstarch-based options. And if you’re wondering why I don’t just use plain cornstarch and move on, it’s because cornstarch on its own feels too dry against my skin (not to mention making me feel like a baked good). I need to have some softeners added, like the Lush people do. Fortunately, the “dusting powder” search brought up several fragrances with the potential to satisfy my suddenly pressing demands, all on the Caswell-Massey website.

Caswell-Massey, a company I’m chagrinned to have entirely forgotten about. During the 70’s and 80’s, I used to feel so elegant buying soap in their Waldorf Astoria shop. That shop is now gone (I guess I’m not the only fickle New York shopper). Another thing I forgot about, which since disappeared . Fortunately, there are a couple of stores in my office neighborhood that carry the line so I can go and sniff for myself.

No, extinct isn’t the right word. When you suddenly want something you haven’t thought of for ages, it may just be that its natural habitat has disappeared and you have to work a little harder to find where it’s gone. Or maybe its had to adapt to change, and you’ll have to hope it hasn’t evolved out of recognition.

Geeking in Seattle

So I found myself walking around Seattle’s EMP museum, whispering gleefully: “Sirius Black’s coat! Corben Dallas’s blaster! O’Neill’s sunglasses! Mr. Pointy!! OMG, a Dalek!!!”

According to their own website slugline, the EMP (for Experience Music Project) is “a leading-edge, nonprofit museum, dedicated to the ideas and risk-taking that fuel contemporary popular culture.” I would note that “popular culture” here takes the shape of rock music and science fiction. Which is no surprise when you consider that the EMP is the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Truly, the place is a techno-geek’s dream.

Seattle's EMP

Seattle’s EMP

The building, designed by Frank Gehry, looks like a giant’s child peeled all the coloured foil off his Easter chocolates and tossed it at the foot of the Space Needle. The EMP website says that Gehry was “inspired to create a structure that evoked the rock ‘n’ roll experience” and used bits of electric guitars as building blocks for an early model design. I would say that some emotional inspirations resonate more successfully than others. Here, the clash and smash lacks the energy to overcome the dissonance of either the structure with itself or with its Seattle Central setting. But it does have the virtue of difference, and the eye makes of it what it will. My own eye, leaning more to the scifi end of the EMP collection, decided one bit of crumpled aluminum had something of Darth Vader’s helmet about it.

Stepping inside, I was drawn to the core of the space and a soaring funnel of electric guitars and keyboards. From there, it was an absorbing meander through the dark (conservationally prudent and also aesthetically correct) and often-winding galleries. The day I was there, the exhibits included: Spectacle: The Music Video; Block by Block: Inventing Amazing Architecture (Lego, of course); Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses; Fantasy: World of Myth and Magic; Hear My Train a Comin’: Hendrix Hits London; Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film; and, Icons of Science Fiction. (I think there are more colons in the previous sentence than most people use in a month)

While I made a respectful pass through the Jimi Hendrix exhibit (and was overwhelmed by a sense of my own antiquity), I was mostly there for the scifi. As you’ll note from the exhibit list, despite the Science Fiction Museum no longer being a permanent collection (how sad!), the EMP continues to maintain a significant presence in this area and to present (and grow) the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. There was a lot for me to see. Correction: for me to wallow in. The EMP is a highly-interactive experience. I pushed all the buttons in the Fantasy exhibit, mapping out a rough fantasy world on digital parchment and learning that my own fantasy archetype is “the Mystic.” I watched a few Horror film clips, then ran into the soundproof Scream booth and let one rip. But mostly I moved, in ever-increasing delight, from case-to-case, staring at costumes and props that represent entire worlds.

If you’re wondering why I’m posting about going to a museum, that’s why. That last bit. Because the EMP isn’t about “popular culture,” or science fiction or even rock and roll. The EMP is a museum of stories. So are most museums, if you look the right way and are willing to work a little. But at EMP it’s all up front: on the music side, it’s about storytellers; and on the scifi side, its all about the stories themselves. So I gawked and the stories unfolded in my memory. And I sent out grateful thoughts to all the artists whose vision and talent had built and shared these worlds, these stories. I emerged into a sunny afternoon, where it seemed only right to be staring up at the Space Needle. An icon of my generation’s bedtime story of the future, anchored to the heart of a city that itself has become iconic of the technology so dominant in the story of today.