Love in Time of Corona

… between Amsterdam, New York and Milford, PA


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Barbi Does Berber

Wednesday, Feb 5th

It’s the end of my first day and my last night at Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I could get used to this combination of luxury hotel and working in the field, but tomorrow I move to the rooms above the sewing and embroidery studio in Tansghart, a small Berber village across the valley. I don’t really like fancy hotels when you have nothing to do but be intentionally bored.  However, being a volunteer design director for the Eve Branson Foundation (EBF), makes staying here a pleasure. I am not a tourist like the group of loud Americans at dinner, who talked impeachment, and made me feel like I couldn’t get away from it even here. Instead I focus on the little mouse-grey cat, petite, with a pink collar and bell, who follows me around, crawling up the leg of my chair trying to get my attention, hungry, her belly extended from kittens that looked ready to pop out.

I went to visit the three craft houses today (weaving, woodwork and sewing) that are at the core of the EBF women’s empowerment program in this region. The weaving studio in Tamgannsin was first. We drove up a dusty winding road behind Asni, and stopped at a low red clay building that looked just like all the other dwellings. Three large looms sat in a whitewashed space. I loped in, a bit shy and awkward, and was met with indifference. I guess they just wanted to get on with their work and not be disturbed. Besides they get a lot of tourist visitors…

Women weavers at the Tamgannsin studio.

I find it hard to be here in the capacity of some sort of judge, and be critical while suggesting design changes as I see it. I mean, they do amazing work. It is skilled and rooted in classical history. So who am I to come in and say what should be different? And of course I have plenty to say. Like stay away from those from those rayon yarns in garish colors. Use natural, in yarn and color. Drop the orange, lime and pink. Use linen, wool and cotton. Be consistent. Don’t be afraid to make the same thing more than once. If it sells, make it again. There is nothing wrong with developing styles that can be repeated. And I do say so to Zoubair, the project manager. I’m not sure he hears me, he’s more concerned with everyday problems. Like the luggage tags he needs for some special guests at Tamadot, made from wood slices, with the names engraved, as well as the Kasbah’s logo. He’s stressed about them, shouting at Abdeltif, the head guy at the wood shop, that the names are upside down, as he turns over the tag to make his point. A long argument ensues between them, as they show each other, and Abdeltif proves that if you turn it his way the name is actually the right way up. They keep flipping the tag in different ways to win the argument, and after a while upside down becomes an abstract concept. A surreal moment in the desert, in the nothingness of it all — the elemental lives, the goats, the raggy sheep and skeletal cats, the half-built clay and mud homes, the red dust cloud every time a motorbike passes. I wonder if personalized wooden tags for the 1% really matter here, a place where survival and Allah seem foremost. I am more puzzled still, when Rachid, the head teacher of the sewing center is not at the studio to meet me. It causes Zoubair, who isn’t over the tags yet, even more frustration, as he frantically starts dialing numbers on his mobile. I enter the center alone, facing about a dozen young women in Hijabs, who sit together around a large table. Each one of them is hand-sewing or embroidering a canvas tote for the Kasbah, the freebie bag that hangs in the closet of every room. I smile at them and mumble Salam Alikom. They are shy and their shyness makes me shy. Zoubair does not bridge the awkward moment by introducing me and letting them know why I’m here. I hate that there is no common language to tell them so myself. Do they even know? Rachid was the one to work with, to translate for, me. As I wander around the studio, I wish that he shows up. In the back room, I find another a large table, and in my mind, I claim it as my space to cut and start making things. I check out the fabric room and leave uninspired. It is full of random fabrics in random colors, textures, and garish prints. I wouldn’t ever use any of them for anything. But this doesn’t bother me. It just reiterates why I was asked to come and help. I check out the impressive JAKI industrial machines, a Korean copy of YUKI, the Japanese Rolls Royce of sewing machines. I also spot one overlocker. The ironing board is leaning, half collapsed, against the wall in the kitchen. That has to change, I think to myself. I mean, while you’re pressing, the fabric needs to lie flat and drape freely on either side of the board. I smile at the girls, as I walk around the table, glancing at their work. They are using bleached white thread on the ivory colored bags and it looks cheap. Pity, I think, and then berate myself for being as critical as Zoubair was over the luggage tags.  After finishing the call, he beckons me to follow him upstairs, where, as from tomorrow, I will be living. I ask him about Rachid and he answers that we will meet in the morning, as if that had always been the plan. 

There are two spacious bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. They share a large covered porch. The right one is yours, Zoubair tells me. The king-sized bed has leopard print nylon Chinese blankets for sheets. For warmth, he says, forewarning me of just how cold it gets at night. I frown and he shows me some Egyptian cotton sheets in the bottom of the closet (each one a damaged reject from the hotel). The terrace is inviting and looks over the wide and dry riverbed across the valley to the Kasbahs’s sprawling and oh so green campus. To my left are the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, distinct and majestic. Not so much snow this year, Zoubair explains, normally there is more water in the river by now. The drought is really bad for our agriculture… I wander into the second bedroom and notice a motorcycle helmet and a backpack on the shelf. Is someone else staying here? I ask. Zoubair’s answer is vague. Yes, there is a guy who stays here sometimes. I frown again. I am not sure how to interpret this. Do I want to share this small space at all? I’d imagined I’d be here alone. I like being alone and unselfconscious. Not having to make stilted conversation or worse, bear the silence of unshared languages. I ask why. He will be here to help you, Zoubair says. Like he can shop for you and cook. I like to cook, I say. Which is true. I like to putts around the kitchen, eat what I want. I am puzzled. And Zoubair says. He’s only here for you… if you want…  And I make it clear that I’d rather be here on my own. That it will be awkward to share with a man whom I don’t know… and besides, I add, thinking I’m making a valid point in the context of the local culture, my husband may not like it either…

It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me that perhaps Zoubair wanted me to feel safe? And then my mind started spinning. Why? Is it not safe to be there on my own? Will I worry, now that I’ve declined a potential bodyguard? All thoughts that had never passed through my mind in the four months of planning this trip. Now, suddenly, the night before I move here, I worry in anticipation. I guess I’ll have a word with Hind, the project manager. I like her and expect she will be straight with me.

Thursday, Feb 6

This morning I asked if it was safe and Hind laughed. Yes, of course. I thought so, I answered, I just didn’t understand why you wanted someone to stay with me overnight…

Being here, on a London-made itinerary, is a lesson in going with the flow. From the moment I arrived, when there wasn’t anyone at the airport to pick me up, my arrival time lost in translation, to Rachid’s absence on the first day, the day that would my introduction to the studio, and getting used to Zoubair’s prickly disposition. Yesterday I wasn’t sure of it, but this afternoon reiterated the feeling that I was more of an inconvenience than a help to him. At 6.15pm, he let himself into the apartment, calling my name loudly, as if he needed me urgently. I came stumbling from the bathroom, surprised to find him fuming. Angry. At me. Clearly. But why? I’d been here barely two days. “You haven’t spent anytime teaching the girls,” he accused, “I was told, that this woman was coming to teach them, and now all you want is to go to Marrakech to buy fabric.” And why did I need fabric anyway? when there was lots of fabric downstairs and could I just sew something and show them already. Do my job! I stopped him by asking why he seemed so angry. He repeated himself, only louder. I tried to defend myself but I was so muddled, so confused at his perceptions and expectations, and so incapable of bringing it back to a level headed conversation, that eventually I turned around, went into my room and locked the door behind me. I was shaking. I was baffled. I had met Rachid at 11am that morning. He’d introduced me to the girls and I told them about myself while he translated. After the lunch break and unpacking, I found that Rachid would be in a meeting at Kasbah for the rest of the day. So, how had I misunderstood? How could I teach a room full of girls without a shared language? I had been prepping all day to be able to show, not tell, them. I got angry too. I was a volunteer! I didn’t answer to him! And I shouldn’t be intimidated…

It was another flow to go with. Another male ego running his “I’m the boss” test on me. I’d been here before, like a million times, throughout my career. But how boring to be in that awkward place already. Why can’t we just get along? Argh, I’ll have to take him aside first thing tomorrow, and draw a line in the desert sand. With grace, strength and conviction. Hopefully.

Friday Feb 7th

I didn’t. We let each other know we were still upset and as the day wore on we were polite. I’m sure this too shall pass. I had my first real day of hands-on work. After securing pattern paper, which ended up being pale pink wrapping paper from the market, I’d begun by making a few template patterns. A pant, a top, a camisole. I was surprised to find that they never used patterns at all, but rather each garment was drawn directly on fabric, and then cut and sewn. This meant there was no consistency in fit, and they could never repeat a style. It seemed amateur and the kind of corner I would cut when I was 15 and had a party to go to. I planned to start by getting them used to paper patterns. Using pink butcher’s paper. Then I needed linen and there wasn’t any. There wasn’t any fabric in a natural fiber and a neutral tone. Everything in the store room was either polyester, rayon, or viscose, and came in colors like burgundy, mustard, teal, cobalt blue –you get the picture. A nightmare for me (natural fiber and neutral color obsessive). But two days ago, I’d spotted a nice white linen at the weaving studio, where the napkins and table cloths were made. I would ask Amina, the strong, empowered woman who ran the weaving studio. I had to go begging, because the weavers were the a-listers, the pros, whereas the girls at my studio were treated as the inexperienced teenagers. Zoubair came to collect me and we drove to Tamgannsin. Along the way I told him how cold New York was (when in doubt talk weather), and he went onto convince me that Central Park was full of palm trees and the city was definitely not near the ocean or any other body of water. He knew this for a fact because his friend had lived there! No matter what evidence I produced, even frantically scanning my phone for definitive pictures, his mind was made up.

Amira did indeed have some lovely fabrics. But she wouldn’t share. Not the grey linen, not the handkerchief cotton, not the light wool either. In the end we settled on six yards of white linen and some cones of thread for tassels. As I walked from the car back to our studio, I was surrounded by a group of little schoolgirls, walking home from elementary school (most girls do not attend high school). It was Friday and they were in a silly jubilant mood. One of them spotted my white Birkenstocks with white socks (sorry, but yes) and squealed and pointed. Soon the whole group was giggling and screaming and pointing, as if I were wearing clown shoes. Part of me felt like I was ten again and being bullied by the cool girls, the other part laughed too. After all, Birkenstocks and socks are a longstanding joke. Then I took a good look at their footwear, expecting sneakers and plimsoles, but they were wearing furry house slippers in the shape of cute animals (think Hello Kitty), and all these little faces, from kittens to pink bunnies stared back at me from the red dirt road. I laughed and felt like pointing back at them — their desert shoes were way sillier than mine!

favorite everyday desert footwear

I don’t have internet here. In the flat. So at 6.30, when the sun has disappeared behind the mountains and the temperature starts dropping towards the 40-ties, I texted Zoubair. Politely telling that I needed to check my e-mails and talk to my husband. He sent the staff-van to pick me up. Turned out to be a good idea. I sat in the library, by a huge woodfire in a plush velvet chair with a large painting of some pasha looking down on me. I ordered a $20 Scotch (no, not the most expensive one). I spoke to Alastair and Leila and my mom. I downloaded three episodes of Anne of Green Gables. Yes! I find it comforting because it reminds me of Pennsylvania, like the farmhouse, and my old London friend Geraldine James plays Anne’s mother. Besides there isn’t much choice on Netflix when you’re in Morocco. I got a little tipsy and went back home in the same van. It was cold in my room. Even in bed, it’s cold, very cold. The windows and doors are thin and there are cracks around the frames. The best thing are the sounds coming across the desert. From baying donkeys, barking dogs and cats on heat to hooting owls and other night birds. But now I’m going deep under the sheets and blankets and watch a bit of Anne.

Saturday Feb 8th

Tonight, I managed to make the AC unit work by switching out the batteries from my flashlight. Not for long however. So I’ll write till my hands freeze. 42F tonight! I’m gonna borrow an electric blanket tomorrow.

I did go to Marrakach with Rachid today. It was amazing. Just to be in the medina/souk and see all the stuff and be there with him, which meant that no one bothered me and he haggled every price down for me, something I’m really bad at. I got Kiki a blanket for her bed after the one I got for Christmas got lost in the post. It’s beige with big pompoms. Leila gets a beautifully made wooden spoon, knife, fork and bowl and silver rings for her second piercings, and Iona gets Arab slippers, black with white embroidery. Alastair wanted a flute, a nay, so I got one, but he’s also getting a cool hat from the Kasbah’s shop. We picked up interlining, elastic, embroidery thread, 50 yards of white linen, pins and needles and bananas and strawberries. We had lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant only visited by locals, except for a Russian/Serbian looking guy, who, we both agreed looked like a lowly Mafia type. He seemed drunk or high or both, macho in an insecure way and he asked the restaurant to look after two big black bags for him, which he left behind the bar and promised to pick up later. We fantasized that in the movie version the bag would be full of money and the start of all sorts of spiraling trouble. Well, I fantasized this and entertained Rachid with storylines. He’s very chill and easy to be with. We went onto the El Fenn hotel’s boutique and I showed him some things that I felt we could learn from. Fabrics, colors, details. The “concept store” environment, and how everything was merchandised beautifully and simply.

Sunday Feb 9th

Today was a perfect day. I spent it alone in the studio. My plan was to go for a hike in the morning with my camera and take pix in the mountains but as soon as I took pictures around our building, the man across the street appeared in his doorway and stood, arms folded and stared at me. I said salam, but he made a loud point of ignoring me. There were so many design ideas in my head that I put the camera away and went inside. I want to make patterns and cut, if not make, lots of garments before I leave. I went into the studio, turned on the lights and put out the things we’d bought –the yarn, the fabric, the trims. Then I laid out my sketches and drew some more. I put up the new big and sturdy ironing board I’d bought for the studio, and spent an hour cleaning their “new” iron which was streaked with gunk, burned into the steel bottom by all the nylon and polyester they’ve been using. This has to change. It seems like they gravitate towards artificial fabrics, maybe for drape, or for the garish prints. I don’t know. Even in the market there were hardly any natural fibers. (Is the third world becoming a dumping ground for “plastic” man-made yarns?) It’s annoying. Places like this could grow their own flax and cotton, it would keep local agriculture going, and stop farmers from being forced to move into the cities that are overburdened and without sufficient work for young people. Grow local, and make local, then ship and sell to nearby regions. This whole valley lives on agriculture – 70%. The rest is tourism. There is quite a bit of eco-tourism. So why not put the two together?

Meanwhile I spent the day in the studio. Alone, sewing. Heaven. The door to the patio was open and half a dozen cats were scattered, asleep on old rugs, around the porch. Every few hours, prayers ring from the various villages around the valley. To the left and to the right. It feels like they riff off each other, harmonizing their prayers chanting, calling, stretching their sounds. Some times a donkey joins in with a bay that is eerily in tune. When they stop, the valley seems to be perfectly silent for a while, like silence has its own echo. Then the birds resume their twittering song and two cats duke it out over their territory once more. These standoffs go deep into the night, threatening, but almost never resulting in a screaming and tussling fight. The odd motorbike putters by, and even more unusual is the sound of a car. Of course there’s the sound of kids playing, especially on Sunday. During the week, the school down the road burst into screams and yelling every time there is a break. This is same sound the world over. The universal noise of play. It falls silent as soon as the bell rings.

I made myself crepes for breakfast. Tiny ones because I only have a tiny frying pan. Two I filled with the strawberries and bananas that Rachid had bought me the day before. Another with the packet of Nutella that I’d taken from the breakfast counter at my Gatwick airport hotel, just in case I’d end up with a chocolate craving in the desert. And one I filled with the local yoghurt that is more like cream.

The nights are so cold, sometimes overwhelmingly so. As soon as the sun is gone the temperature plummets from the sixties to the forties, which really calls for some additional heat. I’ve been battling the AC unit in the wall all week because the remote promises that if “You Feel cold” (this is one of its settings!), there will be heat and visa versa if “You Feel Warm”. On Saturday night it finally surprised me with a blast of warm air that lasted about ten minutes, before the motor puttered out. After that, it only blew cold, which was worse than nothing. Now we have come to an agreement that if I do not fuck around with the controls too much, it gives me ten minutes every night, and sometimes it may even work in the morning. I make my bed like a nest. Layers of blankets and feather comforters between me and the mattress, plus the super soft blankie I brought with me. I never got the electric blanket I asked for, but I’m warm enough, wrapped like this. The pillows are stacked around my head and I pull it all up around my face so I can breathe but little else is exposed. Of course I am fully dressed in pajamas and a thermal vest. I pull off my socks after a while. There is something depressing and claustrophobic about wearing socks to bed. I sleep quite well for about 5 hours, and have exciting dreams about dating celebrity men, but, when I awake, I can’t recall their names. Showering is torture. I keep wishing that the tiny stream of piping hot water, will give me some satisfaction, but it doesn’t. Once in it I don’t want to get out, the cold too jarring. Washing hair is worse. I try to do it in my lunch break when the air is warm enough to dry it. But the air is never really warm. The sun is warm. The air is cold. And the houses are built to keep the cold air trapped inside. I’m sure this is effective in the summer, when it gets up to the 90-ties during the day. I look like a Berber, the way the modern Berber dress, in layers dictated by the temperatures. I start with a tank, then a long sleeved tee, then a sweater, then a long cardigan and then a quilted vest. All this over pants and socks and sneakers. My neck is wrapped in a long woolen scarf. My hair is in a ponytail, (between the dry air and the nylon in some of my clothes it sticks up straight like I’ve just held my finger in the socket).

Wednesday Feb 12th

The last few days were too frantic to get one word into my journal. I stayed late in the studio, making myself a quick dinner, and headed back down until it got too cold to work. I really wanted us to have enough to show for my visit to make a difference once I’m gone. Paper patterns, fabric examples, and a small collection of different, easy to make and hopefully sell, styles. This afternoon was the most fun we’ve had together. The true bonding always happens on the last day. It’s the same with my plastic pollution workshops. The time when all the work we have done together goes on display, and we show and tell. Then we did the group photos, followed by several dozen selfies and a lot of laughter. I went around the circle and made them all say “I am awesome”, for some of them these were the first English words they ever spoke. Then I went upstairs and photographed the clothes we made. Just so you know, it started with me making the patterns from the pink paper. A couple of the girls went to learn some basic pattern skills, taught to them by Rachid, from my basic patterns. Then I cut the first few designs – a camisole, a skirt, a shirt, pants and a jacket. Two tops, that came later, were cut and sewn by Tualia, who is clever and motivated and speaks a bit of English. I taught them how to pleat and used this on two of the tops. I wanted to somehow incorporate the work from all three studios, and so the jacket is made from fabric woven in Amina’s weaving studio and the wooden buttons are made in Abeltif’s workshop. All the embroidery was done by the girls, and they finished everything in time! (All the styles we made are shown at the end of this blog.)

A week isn’t really long enough but we accomplished a lot. I leave tomorrow morning…

Thursday Feb 13th

I’m on the plane back, trying to figure out how I feel. I’m not disappointed. I’m happy with what I accomplished. Happy for myself and the girls. Despite being put off by Zoubair’s attitude towards me. I left my quarters tidy, of course, and this morning I found him there, like the headmaster at boarding school, inspecting the rooms. I stood watching him. Startled at his lack of boundaries. He was already irritated, like he had something better to do, but did he expect (hope?) to find something amiss? Like an un-emptied wastebasket or dried toothpaste in the sink? Or a rug stuffed into my suitcase? Despite the fact that there had been no running water since the night before, I passed. I gave him a sarcastic thumbs up, and he, patronizingly, answered, “yes everything is ok.” I’m not sure why his moods were so significant that they made me feel inadequate. His overwhelming macho irritability, the feeling that nothing is right or good enough, that everything is other than his expectation. Maybe it’s not him. Maybe it’s the culture. Maybe it is what we, Westerners, project. Maybe it’s the mystery that wants to stay a mystery. After all, we do not have the answers. We fucked it up so bad with all our development, our greed and need for more and more. The only things they have more of are children. Ten per family. About. And by our standards, very poor. But the girls at the craft center seem to be having the time of their lives. And yes, that is made possible by the EBF foundation. It’s a place to go during the day, instead of school, which they cannot attend, and be creative, and sell a little bit. But what is the promise? What is the expectation? They still want to get married, have their own ten children. They will never work. And what if they did? Say they became seamstresses, uneducated otherwise, what would this kind of independence, and most likely being single, really get them? These will be their best years. They are carefree and they laugh a lot. They are as entertained by me, as they might be by any other distraction. But they can’t afford ambition. Not our kind. It’s day by day. It’s happiness in the now, sitting around a table chatting, joking and laughing, and whether they embroider Hello Kitty napkins or my white linen shirts, does it really matter? Maybe it matters if they sell more of my shirts. But where does that money go? Most likely into their father’s hand, to help pay for the survival of their large family. My days in the studio with the girls were fun. I know that, with my questioning, critical mind and my need to prove myself, I can get in my own way and make it harder. And that’s on me. I kept wondering: what do I really contribute? What would leave a lasting impression that does indeed help, makes things just a little better than before?  The compliments from the visitors are nice, the compliments from EBF London as I write my daily reports (and omit grumpy Zoubair and elusive Hind) are nice. But it’s not for that. It’s not for my ego gratification. That would be really fucked up. Am I just some kind of do-gooder missionary? Like in the Anne of Green Gables episode where the nuns steal Indian children from their villages to convert them? And am I looking for ways to create a product that makes a wealthy western buyer also feel good about themselves as they bring home a set of locally embroidered napkins, as redemption for their insanely indulgent vacation? Is “the good” really being done? Maybe, if that mother who passes every morning, the one with the baby boy who has the Croup cough, can get the right medicine for her kids? Maybe if those girls got an education beyond 12 years old? Learn English, so I can ask them what they really need? What opportunities would be good for them? They seem so happy, right there in the moment. Being social. Being creative in their own way. I just don’t know. The place was overwhelming in its differences. Maybe, over time, it will all take shape for me. But for now, I have come away with more questions than answers.

The Eve Branson Foundation is a small charity based in Morocco, spearheaded by Richard Branson’s mum, Eve Branson (95). Their mission is to provide young people with valuable skills-training through our dedicated craft centers and to preserve traditional Berber crafts, enriching the lives of local families from Atlas Mountain communities. link to website.


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Gone Dutch

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My twin daughters Kiki and Leila are reintroducing me to my birthplace. To them, the country I couldn’t leave fast enough at their exact age is everything they want; the Dutch scale feels manageable, people use bikes instead of cars, the weather isn’t extreme (no hurricanes or bomb cyclones), the architecture is either historic or cool, college is affordable, the older generations seem relatively levelheaded and the boys are cute.

I left the Netherlands because life felt too small, too oppressive and too incestuous. My stepfather had just left my mom for one of her best friends –a woman whose kids I’d been babysitting and whose ex-husband suggested that I  leave Amsterdam to study fashion design in London.

Every adult I knew had been married to someone I knew and was screwing someone else I knew and it felt like most of my peers were somehow related to me. I wanted to  move beyond the sex appeal of a teacher, a neighbor or the lover of my best friend’s mom. I had to see what the rest of the world was doing. I first moved to Paris, then Australia and then London, where I did study fashion and became a fashion designer. After ten years in London I moved to New York and I’ve spent the last nine years in Miami.

Last December, between Christmas and New Year, my mother turned ninety, so we went to Amsterdam for her big birthday bash. There, in the modernist bungalow of my mother’s friend Petra, where I’d spent many hours dreaming about a future beyond the Netherlands while reading her husband’s Playboy magazines, gathered my entire family as well as all my mother’s friends –the free-lovers of the seventies many of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. Iona, Kiki and Leila couldn’t believe that I had real cousins and they had second cousins who were their age — an entire family they didn’t know existed.

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In the days that followed, Kiki, Leila and I visited the fashion academies in Antwerp and Arnhem and the design academy in Eindhoven. When we returned to Miami in January, they applied (and were accepted) to Cooper Union, Pratt, Parsons and RISD, but Holland stayed on their mind. In March we returned and Kiki took the Eindhoven Design Academy’s entrance exam and Leila did the Arnhem, ARTEZ Fashion, interview and practical test.

When my daughters were very young we moved full time to our weekend home in Milford (Pennsylvania) because of the nearby Homestead School, an amazing Montessori school run from a family farm on eighty acres that’s powered by solar panels. They took classes in a teepee, a Quonset hut and a geodesic dome, performed plays on a stage in the woods, grew vegetables and made art  in a converted barn. In 2009 we moved to Miami and stayed, mainly because of DASH, the Design and Architecture Senior High School, that has rightly gained a reputation for being the best design school in America.

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Early April, Leila heard that she had been accepted by Artez Fashion, the alma mater of Iris van Herpen and Viktor and Rolf. Two weeks later Kiki got news from Eindhoven, the best and hardest to get into design school in Europe, that they would love to have her. What started as an unlikely dream was fast becoming reality, and in the months that followed they got Dutch passports and looked for places to live.  I recently signed leases on two cute student rooms in Arnhem and Eindhoven. It felt like I was tentatively reattaching an umbilical cord of my own.

But isn’t it poetic that Kiki and Leila will continue their design education in the Netherlands? They don’t know the ghosts and ambitions that made me run away. They have their own individual paths and it seems only natural that their instincts complete a circle that is helping me to accept and even love my past, my choices and the place where I was born.

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The Lizard and The Glass Ceiling

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A memory popped up last night.

I won’t say triggered –the word of the day. Of the week, Of the month and yes, going back to Trump’s pussy-grabbing tape, of the year. Expressed first by the women’s march and most recently the #MeToo movement. The club that recruited me as an unexpected member as early as 1972 but, Groucho Marx style, I don’t want to belong to it.

As I drove to see Patti Smith downtown Miami, passing billboards of topless men and women who conveyed their own sexual encounters, I remembered a calendar I did in Amsterdam with a photographer called Lee Kraft. I worked with Lee quite often on newspaper fashion ads for stores like C&A and HEMA. Mundane well-paid modeling jobs. This one was different he said. It was topless for a tasteful Pirelli-style calendar. His client was a friend from America, some successful business man. (Lee was also American). I said thanks but no thanks. Lee said it’s two hundred guilders cash. I said no. He said three. I said no. He said four. I said no. He said five. He said it would be beautiful. He said no one would ever see it. He didn’t take no for an answer, he wore me down and I said yes.

I didn’t know the client would actually be there, I thought it was just good old Lee and me. Call me naive.

The American was a tall, thin man in a suit. He was kind of handsome, but also reminded me of a lizard. There was something scaly about his skin and his long fingers may as well have had suction cups. He didn’t exactly creep me out, but I didn’t trust him either.

I was going to be June he said, referring to the month on the calendar. He showed me the rough sketches of the calendar layout  and stopped at a rudimentary, almost stick like figure with large nipples that were filled in with smudged gold make up. June was written across the top.

I looked at him.

So, I will have golden nipples? I asked and thought of James Bond  and  the girl who suffocates because Goldfinger paints her entire body gold. Thank god it’s just my nipples, I thought.

“Do you mind?” he said rather politely.

I shrugged my shoulders. Of course I minded. It was ridiculous. Surely he knew it was demeaning?

I applied the thick gold paste from the small jar Lee handed me. Then we went into the studio and Lee placed me on the backdrop paper.

“Raise your arms,” he said and I did. Ralph stood next to him and looked at me as if he were looking at his laundry going around in the dryer.

No, this is not going to be that kind of abuse story. I am not #MeToo calling out Ralph Nader here. The, by all accounts, a-sexual or possibly gay independent presidential candidate who screwed things up for Gore in 2000. The consumer rights hero of the seventies and eighties.

“What star sign are you?” He asked. He’d walked over to me as Lee was reloading his camera.

“Leo,” I answered proudly.

“Hmm,” he said. “A difficult sign … for a woman [like you].”

“Why?” I asked defiantly.

“Leos have a very high opinion of themselves. Their expectations for their lives are hard to live up to.”

He looked at me as if he could see through me.

“You’ll end up disappointed.”

I had just turned eighteen. I was modeling to pay for college in London. I was going to be a fashion designer. Something shriveled inside me. It was as if he knew (and I didn’t yet) that I would never amount to much. That I was and would always be as insignificant as I was next to him, there and then. He, dressed in an expensive suit, and me, naked in tiny panties and with painted golden nipples. Miss June 1976.

Ralph Nader had presented me with my first glass ceiling, several years before the term was coined. He was the first man to impress on me that there are limitations to what women should reasonably expect for themselves. I had no idea who he was in the cultural context of the United States. I wouldn’t know for another 15 years. But clearly he delivered his message with such manipulative authority that it impacted me.

I was and am ambitious. I did and do have high expectations for myself. I often fail, in my own eyes. And I often say, well what did you expect? I let myself down. I end up disappointed. Then I bounce back, like I did that day in Amsterdam, when his words became the challenge that was to be disproven. By me. For me. Over and over.

Optimistically, I always assumed the metaphor of glass ceiling meant that if you bash it hard enough, the glass will be broken. Last night I flashed for the first time (duh!) on the real meaning. That women can see through the barrier but can’t get to the other side. This glass is shatter proof. The men stand on the floor above us. We are looking up with our high expectations. They are looking down with the arrogant confidence that only bulletproof glass ensures.

Ralph Nader was speaking from the other side of the glass. I didn’t know it then, but he let me feel it. He wasn’t the last or only man to ever mind fuck me. But I was young and unsuspecting and he was smart and effective. Last night I flashed on him. His arrogance. His entitled manipulation, designed to put an eighteen-year-old model in her place. Who knows what I stirred in him, what led to his urge to disempower me.  As I drove to the book fair, I thought about the divide between expectation and perception (trigger) and in that moment I hated the memory of his words more than the memory of any grope or unwelcome penis sighting.

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Harvey Fucking Weinstein

A fictional vignette set on the night of Tuesday the 10th of October.

At the home of fashion designer Donna Karan, Gaby hands her mother a cell phone:

“It’s uncle Harvey,” she says.

“I don’t want to talk to him,” Donna says. She turns away. She has been crying.

“Tell him yourself,” Gaby says.

Donna takes the phone. She hesitates, wondering whether to press End or throw it across the room.

“Don’t Mom,” Gaby says, “it’s my phone.”

“Hey,” Donna says.

“Can you come over?” Harvey is on speakerphone.

“You’re kidding right? How about a thank you first?”

“Your stocks are up you know?”

“Jesus, they are?”

“Gun stocks went up last week, after the Vegas shooting. It’s a fucked up world darling.”

“I don’t give a shit about DKNY stocks.”

“Come over. Georgina left me. I learned it from a People Magazine news alert.”

Donna looks at her daughter for help. Gaby shakes her head – NO.

“There are reporters outside. I can’t do this right now.”

“I’ll send a car. Use the back door. I need you. I’m alone. God knows what I might do.”

Donna ends the call and hands the phone back to her daughter.

“Do it already,” Gaby says under her breath.

 

Harvey is in a hotel suite. The TV is on in the background. Pictures of Paltrow and Jolie flash across the screen. The sound is off. He is wearing a large white bathrobe wrapped around his huge frame. There is a knock on the door. He gets up, a white tie drops to the floor and the robe opens. He is naked underneath. Holding the two pieces of fabric together with one hand, he opens the door.

“Put some fucking clothes on,” Donna calls from the corridor. “Jesus Harv, what is WRONG with you.”

“Oh come on, I’m not gonna jump you.”

“That’s not the point, it’s just so fucking inappropriate right now.”

“Maybe it’s appropriate. I’m comfortable this way. Who fucking cares.”

“At least put this around you,” Donna enters the room, picks up the white strip of fabric and hands it to Harvey. She ends up putting it around him herself, adjusting the large robe as if he’s a model in one of her shows. He puffs on a large cigar, blowing the smoke sideways, away from her.

“There,” she says almost maternally. “Now I need a drink.”

They sit down across from each other. Donna picks up the remote, flicks through the channels and stops at National Geographic. She pulls her legs under her and rubs her face. Harvey too is rubbing his large head.

“Fucking idiot asshole,” she says and looks up at him. “I thought you’d stopped this shit when you married Georgina. What were you thinking?”

“It’s what we do.” Harvey shrugs. “Trump did it. Look at him – our President! He flaunts it and they love him!”

“The press doesn’t love him. New Yorkers don’t. Our friends don’t. Anyway since when is Trump your role model?”

“It’s the reason men achieve. In movies, fashion, business. The money. The fame.”

“What is?”

“Women! Sex!”

“Not for me! Imagine me groping and propositioning every male model that walked in for a casting?”

“Don’t say you haven’t thought about it?!”

Donna looks right at Harvey who has a semi-erotic smirk on his face. She shakes her head.

“I’m not here to talk dirty with you. And no I haven’t. It’s not how we think.”

“WE?”

“Women. We may look at a hot guy and joke about how he makes us feel, pretend we’d sleep with him, but I don’t know any woman who would force herself on a young, sexy guy the way you did with these poor girls.”

“Poor girls?! I made their careers! Gwynie, Angie! I gave them everything they dreamed off! I never hurt them! Some of them got a million bucks just for showing their tits and watching me – you know– for a few minutes!”

Donna looks disgusted.

“Stop! You’re a pervert. A creep. I had no idea it was this bad. None!”

“I’m not proud of it.”

“You just don’t think it’s a big deal?”

“Everyone did it. Or at least tried. What about dear old Sydney Kimmel? And Warren Beatty?”

“Beatty stopped years ago, and he was hot.”

“And I’m fat and ugly.”

“You abused your power.”

“Power is all I’ve got. No girl wants to fuck me!”

Donna studies him. He is too large for his chair, as he sits slouched with his legs spread, a big cigar between his thick lips. One chubby hand stroking the kind of beard that looks good on Clooney and Beckham but fails miserably as an attempt to hide his pock-scarred face.

“Oh boo-hoo,” she says, “you had Georgina. You got two lovely kids. You got it all! You’re a sick fool and now the whole world knows it. And NO – ONE is EVER going to feel sorry for you.”

“I don’t give a shit about pity. But really? You know that they all showed up looking sexy and seductive? They wanted me to want them. Right? But they do not want me! They want to be the next Marilyn – so every man in the world… and I could make that happen for them. All they dream of are teenage boys jerking off to their fucking pictures. And I have that power! But because I look like the fucking BEAST in Beauty, I am called a sexual predator when I ask for some jerking off in return. Ironic no?”

“You hate women.”

“Perhaps. They never liked me.”

“You really do.”

“It’s bewildering. Like you said last night.”

“I don’t even remember what I said. Exactly.”

“You said a stupid thing.”

“Thanks. I was trying to find a way to defend you, for Georgina and the kids. I love them.”

“You don’t love me. “

“No Harv, right now I don’t love you.”

“You never loved me, you never even liked me. You tolerate me because I’m Harvey Weinstein.”

“I can’t believe I said what they say I said.”

“You better own it.”

“It’s so not me. Everyone knows that.”

“No they don’t. Right now the insatiables are tearing you apart. It’s the perfect companion story to my debauchery. The fashion designer enabler! Like the madam! Everything you’ve ever done, for women, for kids, New Yorkers, Haitians. Forget it. It’s all been erased. You are the bitch that sold out women. Welcome to Hollywood baby.”

“Hollywood?” Donna looks puzzled.

“Georgina believes Hollywood pits women against each other. But it’s just how women are. You’re just as competitive as men, but your hierarchy is unclear. We fight it out honestly, man to man. There are no illusions; it’s all sport – the winner wins. You bitches just pretend to support each other, but really all you do is compete.”

“Bullshit! I am a woman’s woman! I went out of my way to hire only women. I paid them well. I loved working with my all women teams. We did great stuff together. That was what made Donna Karan the brand! When I sold the company I opened Urban Zen, gave money to Hillary, Planned Parenthood, I started women’s labor incentives in Haiti. Health Care programs for low income families here in the City, everything I did was for women and their families!”

“No one cares about that now! You sold your women out. You said they were asking for it — for sex with me!” Harvey laughs. “..and here we are — thinking we’re both champions for women…” He laughs harder.

Donna weeps. She drinks down her wine, gets up for a refill and starts pacing.

“You and I are NOT the same. I am angry! Furious at what you guys create in the name of the female sex. The way YOU portray us! And then we all need to live up to that warped idea of us! I was so fucking pissed at that DKNY dog-walking commercial with that Gone Girl actress.”

“Emily Ratakovski, is her name. Cute girl.”

“It was NOT MY WORK! That bra has MY NAME on it, and yet I have nothing to do with that branding. NOTHING! I don’t even know who ran that campaign.”

“I thought the ad was cute.” He takes a suggestive drag on his cigar and readjusts his robe.

“CUTE!? I no longer design the ‘cute’ shit that is out there with my name on it. I designed for real women twenty years ago! Working women! Not girls. Not grown women who want to look like sexy young girls. Not girls who want to prove that they have a positive body image of themselves by walking down the street undressed. Or post nude pictures – look at me, look at me, how I love my body — my body is better than yours.”

“Instagram is one fucking competitive shit-show of hot women trying to out-hot-body each other… but I can’t touch them!”

“No you can’t. Different thing. It’s complicated but it’s different.”

“Not to me. Not to men. Men think it’s all for them.”

“Well, get with it. That’s the depressing part. It’s for ourselves and each other. Not to get laid. I almost kill myself with daily yoga so I look fit, I’ve had nips and tucks and lifts and it all hurts and goes south anyway and I wish I could just stop. Believe that it doesn’t matter. But I can’t. I need to feel young to feel good. And feeling good is all about looking good. For me. In this bloody business. Fashion…. and also in your fucking films.”

“So move to your beloved Haiti.”

“I might. It’s great. For that reason, perhaps. Also. When I am with people who have so little, are so positive, so loving, I don’t even look in the mirror. I go days without thinking about myself. My age, my saggy arms, my wrinkles. And yet I feel sexier there than I ever do in New York.”

Harvey stares at her.

“Actually … Haiti is the only place I still feel sexy. Worthy. Real. Myself.”

“You sound like Georgina,” he sounds bored.

“Why?”

“You know what Donna? I’m tired. I’m totally fucked. I lost everything I’ve worked for my entire life, so I don’t really give a shit when or why you feel sexy. When any woman feels sexy.”

“All you care about is yourself.”

“That’s right — I’ve earned it.”

“ A lonely place Harvey, I can’t help you there.”

“ I never asked you to.”

“No, I did that all on my own. Three off-the-cuff, inebriated sentences, and MY reputation of 30 years is down the toilet. All for the least deserving man in the universe. And all I want to do is talk to Stephan. He’d know what to do. You didn’t deserve another marriage. But I loved him. I was faithful. I thought we’d be together forever. Then he dies! So now this one is on me and me only. And I have no idea what to do. How to be in this gotcha world – I try but it’s all too much and I miss him.”

Harvey yawns. “Goodnight Donna. Thanks for stopping by.”

“Goodnight Harvey fucking Weinstein.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

This is a piece of satire that reflects my sense of the culture that created these two  “fallen icons”. I have met them both. I interviewed with Donna in 1999 and saw her socially in the Hamptons and Miami. She is a loving, open woman whom I truly believe has done a lot to support and help modern women. She lost her husband to cancer in 2001. He was her champion and partner. I don’t know why she said what she said this week, or how she meant it, but I have no problem cutting her some slack. Weinstein however…

I have my own Harvey Fucking Weinstein Story.

In 1989 a British actress friend insisted I go out with him. I don’t know if she was trying to ingratiate herself, I don’t know how he’d treated her. I do know that he introduced her to Woody Allen who subsequently used her in Husband and Wives. She told me he was a bit of a groper, but that she’d warned him to keep his hands off me. Ha!

It was to be a drinks and movie date and we met at the Bemelmans Bar. First thing he said to me was “I promised Lysette I’d keep my hands to myself.” Nevertheless I kept peeling him off me over cocktails and then he fell asleep within the first ten minutes of the movie. Relieved, I left him there, snoring loudly, and skipped out.

Lysette and I laughed about it and he never mentioned the date to her again.

Years later I was in an elevator with him, my husband and a glam crowd at a film award ceremony for Richard Gere. Liam Neeson had just smiled at me so I felt feisty. From my corner of the elevator I said loudly, for everyone to hear:

“Harvey! The only date that ever fell asleep on me!”

He glared at me. He was furious.

 

 


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I Don’t Want To Go Outside

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I don’t want to go outside. It’s too hot, ten minutes is the max before sweat starts pouring down my back and I feel faint. But it’s not that, the heat is superficial compared to the chaos around me. Our small suburban neighborhood, one of the few left on the beach that is still of mid-century proportions – small lots, small houses, parents pushing baby prams, pulling dogs, unsupervised toddlers riding bikes down the middle of the street, self-appointed seniors in safety vests waving at cars on short-cuts to slow down.

But they are all inside too. Post Irma. Post evacuation.

The only ones out are the county cleanup crews and Jewish families on their way to temple, walking to the other side of Surfside, across from Saks at Bal Harbour Shops. It’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah. They’re all dressed up in their best togs and move with determination, as if nothing can stop them. Nothing has changed. As if they are not picking a path through brown mounds of devastated nature that have been dragged out of each and every yard, into the street to be collected by whom? To be taken where? Is there enough to make us a new planet? I wonder. I fantasize.

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Inside, at my computer, I wage war with my landlord and his Baby Huey property manager. They say that disasters bring out the best in people, adversity brings them together. Not so with our landlord, all the way in Hawaii, acting like we’re annoying guests who overstayed their welcome and now have the audacity to ask for things like boarding up the house — why should he protect our possessions? How about trying to protect your 2.5 million property? I ask, but since the house did not blow away, this seems like a rhetorical question to him. Hindsight, as always, being the argument of the obtuse.

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I drained the pool. I sucked the hose like I was stealing gasoline, and funneled the green, slimy water into the lake behind the house. This worked until the level of the pool was lower than that of the high-tide bay. Science I thought, wishing it were a scam and I could blame the Chinese. The remaining water sits about a foot deep, a putrid breeding ground for mosquitos. When I ask what the owner wants to do about this and the 60ft tall palm tree that is top heavy with coconuts and leaning dangerously over the fence, Baby Huey writes me e-mails the likes of Trump Tweets:

“… don’t create extra work and problems [for us].”

 Seriously?!

The girls, back at school, after the Irma-Cat5-coming-right-at-you and YOU WILL DIE news flashes, the closures, evacuations, cancelled flights, power outages, are asked by their teachers “did you have a nice vacation?” I guess some of them follow their students on social media and our escape to Milford looked too idyllic by the Miami-Dade criteria of hurricane evacuation anguish.

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Oh Miami. It’s not even October and you’ve already worn me out. I count the days to June, when I can leave and not come back. Never live through another hurricane. Never again be told that I’m a bummer when I bring up climate change during a dinner party while water floods the streets below us.

Never again feel like a stranger, a misfit in a place that is alien to me in its upside-down culture of Whatever. Where gravitas and context and consequence are the lexicon of Debbie Downer and her tribe of party poopers. Where everything I try to do feels like grasping at a hologram as people shake their heads and say: “What did you expect? This is Miami! Why don’t you just let it go. Life’s a beach, just have fun.”

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But the sand on the beach burns the soles of my feet. The ocean water is strangely warm and filled with hurricane debris and plastic – bags, cups, straws, lighters, bottles – and surfers are coming down with nasty infections. Two more hurricanes passed by Miami Beach, a few hundred miles out in the Atlantic. Barbuda, Dominica, St.Maarten/Martin, Tortola, St.John, Vieques, Puerto Rica, Cuba, the Keys and Houston lie destroyed. People are homeless. Cultures gone…

I don’t want to go outside.

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Beyond Miami Beach…

As Advised by Great White Dog

I find myself annoyed. Am I annoyed with Miami? After eight years of living here?

Much has happened in that time. We lived here during Obama’s his entire presidency. When we arrived there were many unspoken agreements that had shaped the local culture over the twenty preceding years, from the wild-west eighties until the crash of 2009. “As long as we are having fun” was one of them. Being serious was boring. I was called a Debbie Downer at a dinner party, when I talked about water in the streets as a result of climate change (that BTW, had made every guest late for the party). Don’t get me wrong, I like having fun, but my idea of fun is  different from dressing in skimpy but expensive designer clothes, drinking outrageous cocktails, clamoring around celebs and music so intense that the only possible interaction is taking selfies with your “friends” (while hoping for one with that star).

Yes guilty, my initial blogs were all about those parties. As an outlet for my culture shock. And, after years of working in NYC and living in Milford, PA with small children, these parties were so alien, so different and took me so far outside myself, that it felt like something I needed, in the way that getting really drunk sometimes feels like a healthy dose of vitamin C. It wore off fast, the so-called glamorous lifestyle, one that I had always walked away from, in Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York. It just isn’t me. I like to drive myself hard and if I don’t accomplish stuff I set out to do, I get depressed. I do not dream of retiring, shopping and sitting by the pool for the rest of my life. I need to be heard and seen and not for gossip and what I wear. So when the party dust settled I got to work on being relevant in Miami, no matter what it took.

It took a lot… I gave it my best… I feel depleted… I can’t say I conquered and I’m kind of over trying (… plus I’m getting shit done in other parts of the world).

And yes, I realize it’s not all about me and I’m not alone. Three months into 2017 and this worn-out feeling is a national depression. Up and down the East and West Coast we aspired to be part of a wave of hope that Obama brought with him. One that I saw as a way to change and save Miami, with talks of rising sea-levels, an ocean full of plastic, recycling and up-cycling, the right for all kids to an inspired public education such as DASH, affordable housing instead of 20% occupancy in condos and private homes worth billions on Miami Beach, air-conditioned year-around.

But if it felt like I was swimming against the stream over the past eight years,  I am now swimming into a Tsunami. Will the already lavish parties get even bigger and crazier as the 1% feels empowered, emboldened in their greed and need to flaunt it, with Miami Beach as the perfect stage for competitive one-percenting? Living less than a mile from Sunny Isles, with its six Trump Towers, and the highest concentration of Russian investments in recent years, Russia’s unabashed imperialism is palpable. And after the cuts to environmental protection, the NEA, healthcare, public transportation, education, housing and human and women’s rights, what will happen to the other group, the full-time residents and working class whose statistics show that Miami’s income disparity is one of the largest in the country?

Yet it is all about me. Also. About what I can give and do and how I will spend the next twenty years of my life optimizing who I am, what I have learned and how I can reflect this back on generations to come. In another year the twins will leave for college. I will be free from the school calendar, driving and feeding and other hands-on mothering. I look at them, and how they act and feel, and I remember being seventeen and practically jumping out of my own skin with impatience, anger even at being told what to do by teachers, parents, the system. The nervous restlessness that I now recognize for what it is in my girls – their booster engines filled with ambition for their future and need for autonomy, propelling them forward. As I see this in my daughters I recognize it in myself, four decades older than they are, but the impulse is the same, I am getting ready for another shift.

So I am annoyed at Miami. Or I am just annoyed. I am practically jumping out of my skin with irritation at the status quo, and like a very old teenager I’m going to use this urge to amp it up some and get more shit done…

(But maybe not in Miami).

 

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