Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I would have never known..

On the day I almost bumped into Lady Gaga Seeing her was not my biggest surprise that day. That said, when I noticed a small crowd gathered around the entrance of the Helmsley Hotel, I suspected a celebrity had drawn them there. Initially, I’d thought that a tall bald guy, at least a head taller than anyone else, was the attraction. Camera in hand, I approached. That’s when I heard someone begin a question with, “Lady Gag, do you…” With that clue, I looked down and spotted her solid blond mop of hair slowly making its way curbside to her huge black SUV. All smiles, she climbed in and was whisked away. That happened in less than a minute as I walked past the Helmsley toward the Plaza Hotel. And beyond. I was in a hurry to see what promised to be a sizable collection of Tiffany stained glass lamps. As I neared the Macklowe Gallery at 667 Madison Avenue, I had no idea I would enjoy a private viewing. “Are you Barry?” When I answered, I was buzzed into the glass front door and immediately faced a second one. Seconds later, that one was buzzed open too. “You called earlier?” “Yes,” I answered, although I had a difficult time focusing on the smiling woman in high heels who had greeted me. To my left were three Tiffany Lamps on display a little more than an arm length’s away on my left. I steered my attention to the sales lady. “I saw that you have a basement floor with a large collection.” “Indeed,” she said, as she led me to the stairs behind her. No one was down there; she switched on the lights. I followed her. Halfway, on a landing, I saw what I had imagined I would find. Original Tiffany lamps of all shapes and sizes stood on the floor, sat on shelves and rested on ledges that served as tabletops. In that wonderland of genuine Tiffany creations, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to look first. Prices for small desk lamps with turtleback glass inserts started at $7500; many of the full sized beauties with intricate patterns were hundreds of thousands. Each! For about ten minutes, I had the place to myself. Since prices were coded, I didn’t bother looking for that information. Instead, I studied the more than century old American art. And I was impressed. “Would you like to be on our mailing list?” I answered, “Of course!” despite knowing the question was meant to be a gentile way of getting me to leave. Moments later, someone buzzed me out. Immediately I headed for Lillian Nassau, a much smaller genuine Tiffany store on 220 East 57th Street. I recognized the store immediately; my partner and I had visited it a few months ago. While there, we had met the owner, a woman I knew I’d recognize when I rang the bell to enter. Because there was only one door, I almost felt like home. But the owner, Arlie Sulka, wasn’t the woman who greeted me. “I’m Doris, may I help you?” She was so polite that I wondered whether she might be Arlie’s mother. “I’m looking for a banker’s lamp,” I told her, “an original Tiffany.” At first, she appeared puzzled. “Do you mean a desk lamp?” she asked. As she saw me nod, she walked toward a row of shelves in the back of the store. “Here’s one,” she said, “solid metal, and it works.” She sat the lamp on what looked to be a dinner table in the middle of the room. “Is it signed?” I asked. Although I didn’t mean to be difficult, I knew that mattered, especially if the lamp was to fetch its price of $9500. She turned it upside down. I saw scratch marks. She told me that someone had tried to scrape off a felt covering on the bottom. I looked closely. There was no Tiffany signature, just scratches. “We’ll guarantee that’s real,” she told me. “And maybe we can come down on the price a little.” I thanked her, then turned to a huge piece that was big enough to have served as a room divider. I marveled at the craftsmanship. She told me that they had sold it long ago, and were selling it for the second time. The family didn’t want to keep it any longer. The size of it reminded me of the amazing stained glass window my Dad had made for our Temple. Doris seemed fascinated when I mentioned that story. I wasn’t surprised. She’d told me she had sold stained glass for more than thirty years. “You might want to go to the Armory,” she suggested. “We have a booth in the Art and Design Show there.” When I thanked her for her kindness, she asked me to wait for a minute. “Did you know that many of the Tiffany lamps were made by women?” I didn’t. I’m sure I looked surprised. “Let me get a book for you,” she insisted. I helped her reach it from a stack on a top shelf. She handed me a copy of Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll send you one of mine.” She seemed pleased. I know I was. Eventually, my partner and I reached the Armory and found Lillian Nassau’s space. It was elegant, but warm. Less than half a dozen Tiffany lamps were there. One of those, a beautiful green stained glass floor lamp, was one we had seen months earlier. Arlie Sulka seemed to remember us. “Did Doris give you a ticket to get in?” she asked. I told her that she hadn’t been able to find one. Arlie apologized. Then she answered our question. “That green lamp is $65,000. We sold it years ago. Now the current owner has brought it to us.” We were glad to see Arlie, but we were also impressed to find that her lamp was one of the least expensive items in the show. I must admit I fell in love with an impressionist painting that sold for “Something in the six-fifties,” as in $650,000. But that wasn’t my biggest surprise. That would come on my flight home when I began to read Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I discovered that, although Tiffany made the glass he used for his creations, he didn’t make any money. In fact, his stained glass business was losing money. Changing that was only possible because Tiffany heeded many bits of advice from Clara. One of them startled me. She told him that he really ought to make stained glass lampshades. B.Koplen 11/20/13

Sunday, October 27, 2013

the last things

                                                   All that remains

Mindful to shut their back yard gate, I’d swept their basement
floor, re-checked their empty house for anything hidden, stored.
Nothing was there, nothing more.

Had I cleansed their home so well that even memories caught 
in corners by spiders’ webs held only shadows now? There must 
be a hoard of remnants

I hadn’t found before. I thought of a door I had not opened,
a crawl space where forgotten things might be. Switched on,
my silver flashlight was the key

to bits of history I’d hoped to find. On my belly, like my marble
days in dirt, I aimed my beam at a cache I’d overlooked. There
they were, Dad’s garden tools,

his screen wire trellis, his tomato cages, stakes and string and
a cushion he’d knelt on when he’d strung everything that needed

How tiny was his garden then, when a dozen squash was his
bounty, when cucumbers came in twos or threes; Mom loved
to cook them then.

I harvested those memories as I grew grass on Dad’s tiny spot,
long fallow and unplanted. Although their house would soon be
sold, these house parts were left, intended.

                                    B.Koplen 10/27/13

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What a teacher hates most...

Failure!                 In the course of each semester, I pause just before midterm during a class to chat privately with each of my students. Having such talks allows me to better understand even those students who seem to want to avoid the spotlight of the front row seats. Usually, they are the quiet ones. Often, they are my students with the best excuses for missing class.

This past Thursday I had my quiet interviews. Each one began with my request to be given their work assigned in lieu of mid-term exams. Not one of my thirteen students had completed their work.

Of course, I didn’t know that when my first student and I spoke. I had found him to be quiet but interested, capable but unlikely to put forth any extra effort. I also noted that he had been absent too many times.

“Do you realize that you’re on the verge of failing the class due to your absences?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, “I’ve had family matters…”

Although I hear that often, I try not to discount that excuse in case it is true. Instead, I ask whether that means they should take the class next semester and drop out of this one. Those with serious problems often elect to do just that.

“During class,” I told him, “I want you to write to me about what you think you should do and what you think you want to do. Let me have that at the end of class.” Before sending him off, I assured him that I didn’t like losing my students and I would work with him.

Then came the rest of my back rowers.

“I have too much work,” said a tiny young woman. “My job makes it hard for me to find time to do my assignments.”

“How many hours do you work each week?” I asked.

“Maybe twenty or twenty one,” she told me.

“What do you do when you’re not working?” I asked. Figuring she might work four hours a day five days a week, I wondered whether her evenings could be spent studying. She was taking two other classes in addition to mine.

She shrugged, then told me she had problems with her other classes too. Her remarks led me to think that she wasn’t motivated to go to school. Immediately, I wondered whether I was losing my ability to inspire uninspired students. Shaking off that thought, I gave her a one-week extension.
Then came the others. None had their work. Each excuse was similarly disheartening.

Finally, one young man asked whether he could bring it to me the next day. He’d left it in his girlfriend’s car. And she, who always sat next to him in class, was absent.

“Sure,” I said, pleased that someone had done the work I’d mentioned in every class prior to this class as essential to their mid term grade.

As my students filed out, one remained. The young man I’d asked to write an appraisal of himself and his performance had been diligent. Clearly written, his thoughts filled an entire page. At the top half were notes “To the teacher.” At the bottom, “To myself.” What he wrote is something I will reflect on each time I sense another student is wrestling with similar issues. Hopefully, it will help all of us to avoid failure.

What follows are his exact words. They will serve as reminders of why he will be missed.

To: The teacher
 I feel that what you was telling me when we spoke was right and made perfect since. Why would I dig myself in a hole even with the issue going on at home and at life. I shouldn’t hurt myself as I’m doing now…So, the option of dropping the class and not failing would be better than keep going through all this and failing.

To: myself

Knowing that I have issues going on at home and life, I should of been more smarter about taking the class and putting myself through a rough time in this class despite, if I feel like [it,] I can dig myself out. And even if I like the class I should drop the class to make it better on myself. Rather then being dumb about the situation I should be smart about it. I agree with my teacher one-hundred percent about everything.

                                                B.Koplen  10/12/13

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A reason for gardenias...

A man I wish you had known        Admittedly, I nursed my precious gardenias; wasting even one of their alluring blooms was unthinkable. Unlike ordinary compacta and azaleas, my gardenias required attention, a little coaxing. But it was worth the effort; their smell was an unmatched gift of nature. I’d planted less than a dozen in the large garden area around my home I sold a few years ago.

Since moving into my second floor apartment surrounded by sidewalks and a parking lot, I’ve missed my gardenias. They were sweet as carefully cultivated relationships with friends I didn’t want to lose. Of course, when I had to sell my home and move downtown, I could not take them with me.

Since living here, there have been notable distractions, demands that have distanced me from simple pleasures like my gardenias. I suppose that’s why, when my Mom’s house was recently emptied and sold, I was jolted by the absolute loss of that hub it represented to our family. Very soon, unless I invited, I knew I would never return there again.

Perhaps I should have been deciding what to do with so many memories long ago. Unlike my mother, I haven’t accumulated them in a disarray of boxes and scrapbooks my children haven’t already explored. My brother-in-law has converted some to DVD’s; for that I’m thankful. The rest may fill an archival vault if we can agree on its proper location.

As I was on my vigorous morning walk, I thought about that as I veered from my standard path. Flowers planted by the city were still blooming on a cool almost October morning. To my pleasant surprise, I noticed a row of small bushes with
blooms turning brown that I hadn’t seen before; the area had been newly planted in early spring. I bent down. In front of me were half a dozen gardenias!

Without hesitating, I picked a fresh flower and tried to drain its smell. That was impossible; it lasted my entire walk. Then I gave it to someone else to enjoy. The next day, I looked at other areas that had been newly planted. More gardenias! Greeters from the city to my soul!

That’s what I thought of today, about how I might have missed them had I not gone a different way on an otherwise often trod path. But I found them and, indeed, was nourished by that finding. I promised myself I’d never miss them again; I’d tell others that gardenias had come to downtown. To me, they were as welcome as the geese that seem to have permanently returned to the river that splits our city.

I revel in seeing it everyday. Some days I rejoice in its beauty, a beauty I share with many others. In fact, I had planned to tell lots of people about the gardenias by taking pictures of them in their hiding places and showing them those images.
One person I had hoped to show them to was Walter, a favorite customer who seems like a member of our store family. Since he retired a few years ago, he has visited us regularly, usually before or after his dialysis.

About 6’4”, Walter sat in the same chair and talked about the folks we knew and a few things we didn’t. His bass voice and easy smile touched us all. Usually we joked and laughed, but never talked about the last days we knew would come.

We didn’t want them to.

In fact, we didn’t know how close they were. Walter didn’t tell us. He never came to us to tell us about sad news. Instead, he came with life and a willingness to banter with folks who hated to see him leave.

Early this morning, I received a call I didn’t expect but probably should have. Walter died at Duke University at 3:00 a.m.

Immediately, I turned to look at the chair we thought of as Walter’s. It was about where he had left it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to accept that he would never be there again. Although it was time, I’d never thought of saying goodbye to Walter. Now I didn’t have a choice.

How would my co-workers do that? How would I?

All day I’ve thought about that. Until now, I haven’t known. But now I do. With his family’s permission, I’ll find a sturdy gardenia and plant it in his yard. If they’ll let me, I’ll care for it as long as I am able to tend to its beautiful blooms.

                                                B.Koplen  10/5/13


Saturday, August 24, 2013

You wish you had a student like this...

In my class, only the best            “Barry, will you teach this class?”

When I’m asked that way, I sense our Dean’s secretary is desperate. At least, when she exhales “Thank you!” it seems that way. Usually, her request means another lecturer has bailed out of a Humanities class filled with Huck Finns from Auto Repair or members of our college’s baseball team.

But yesterday’s class wasn’t one of those. All but one student sat at attention, appeared eager to learn. As they introduced themselves, I learned I had a classroom filled with brainy RN’s, engineers, radiologists, and dental hygienists; the one who slouched and pouted a bit was my tiny artist in graphic design.

Unlike the others, her focus appeared to be elsewhere; she was different, aloof. Not until the class ended did I see why it might be difficult to make her part of the class.

“Do you have a minute?” I asked her.

Although I didn’t want to single her out, I did want to let her know that I respected her talents as much as those of the left-brained folks who sat at the front of the room. Indeed, before I spoke, I thought of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. My student seemed to have a different take on reality, a much different was to communicate her ties to it.

She walked toward me, stopped a few feet away, respectful but distant.

“I’d like you to consider doing something,” I said, as I tried not to focus on her piercings, four studs arranged around her lips as well as a small steel ball just below her lip; it matched the one on the tip of her tongue. From the back of the room where she’d been, I hadn’t been able to discern those adornments.

“As you read this book,” I said as I pointed to a copy of the Holocaust novel, Light One Candle, “I’d like you to do something different. If you will, I’d like you to illustrate your responses to that book, to the things that strike you in it.”

She didn’t smile, wasn’t appreciative. But she didn’t frown either. She nodded, turned and walked away. I wondered whether talking was difficult with so much metal in and around her mouth.

“I may never know,” I told myself. Although all of my students had left, I noticed that a stocky young man in jeans and a well-worn polo shirt had come to my desk.

After a most interesting class that was much better than I’d anticipated, my welcome may have sounded bubbly.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Is this Humanities 165 with Mr. Koplen?”

“Yes sir, that’s me,” I said. “How can I help you, young man?”

“I just signed up for your class. I was told there was one spot open.”

I tried not to grin at hearing that; my roll had a targeted limit of 24. Unless someone had dropped, he was 25.

But I didn’t mind. The class was that good; this student seemed interested and well behaved. I had no reason to expect any more surprises that morning.

“Welcome to the class,” I said, reaching out to shake hands.

“You may want this.” I accepted the form from my new student the Dean’s secretary had prepared. I read it carefully. Then I paused before I spoke.

“Let me tell you what you missed, Amanda.”

                                                B.Koplen 8/24/13