Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Hands-on Philosopher: Mark Remaly

His fingers move over the woven chair seat like a fiddler’s over his instrument. Only, in Mark Remaly’s case, he’s coaxing forth not music but story. “I don’t consciously think about it,” explains the caner, who owns The Seat Weaver in Westfield, Massachusetts with his wife, Alice Flyte. “But if I run my hands over a chair, I get the feel of it.” Just the day before, for instance, a customer brought a chair into the shop: his hands came across some “dings” in its back, and he guessed that “a grandmother or somebody had pushed it into a sewing-machine for years and years, and she [the customer] said, ‘You know, I think you’re right about that.’” Something in the chair spoke to him, Remaly says, telling him or “releasing” its story.

That’s a pretty common occurrence for Remaly, who has been working his craft since he was 15. Born with limited vision, he attended Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and it was in a class there that he learned chair-caning. He discovered that he truly enjoyed working with his hands. “It’s kinda like re-making,” he reflects. “I don’t think of it as art per se because I’m really just following what I’ve been told – y’know, over, under, over, under. But somehow it becomes more than just a bunch of cane. It becomes – hmm-m, what's the word I’m looking for? -- a whole. It becomes strong enough to sit on, it becomes art, it becomes a craft. That’s the thing I think I enjoy most about it: transforming a bundle into something practical, useful, and pretty.”

Enjoy is a word that’s very much at home in Remaly’s conversation, snuggling into this sentence or that. He enjoys the rhythm of the work itself. He enjoys talking with the customers and helping them get “re-connected with their chairs.” And, most of all, he just plain enjoys his life. The fact that he went completely blind eight or nine years ago hasn’t curtailed his enjoyment. Granted, Remaly has had to find “different ways of getting information that I used to be getting through my eyes.” He has “always been more of a hands-on person than a cerebral intellectual,” he says, and the loss of his sight hasn’t changed that: if anything it has fine-tuned his sense of touch to the point where he really is able to pick up on a piece of furniture’s smallest detail – the story in the wood, if you will.

The same holds true for other aspects of his life. He accepts that “we live in a visual world…that 80-plus percent of what people take in is visual. But that doesn’t mean if you don’t see, you miss 80%. There’s something” – he sighs, but it’s a reflective sigh, not a sad one – “that compensates. Touch. And when I say, ‘Touch,’ I mean the air moving by your face when someone moves their hand. To me, that’s touch as well as tactile touching. Or the power goes off: you’re looking to get out of the room, and you feel the wall before you actually encounter it….I knew an English guy, and he used to snap his fingers all the time” – Remaly, getting lost in the story, mimics the gesture – “and get echoes off of buildings and this and that.”

He gets a little blasé about his craft at times, Remaly admits. Then someone comes along and reminds him how unique what he’s doing is “and how much they appreciate it. And that’s a wonderful feeling because sometimes I’m thinking about other things while I’m working, or I’m coming into a difficult part that requires more concentration. It’s never drudgery, but sometimes it gets put in the background until someone reminds me of what I’m doing[, and it’s] ‘Yeah, you’re right, this is unique.’ And quite often I hear, ‘I couldn’t do that,’ and that’s not true. You have to, first of all, want to.”

For someone who insists he’s not cerebral, Remaly can do some pretty sustained philosophical riffs, especially when it comes to his craft. We talk about how there’s a craving in many of us for texture and how a liking for old-time crafts, such as caning, pottery, and quilting, comes out of this feeling. “There’s the enjoyment of the finished product,” he reflects, “but there’s also the enjoyment of just doing it.” Caning is something he’d do “even if money weren’t involved….I get into a state when I’m caning: my hands are busy, [but] my mind is half-busy and has a chance to wander.”

This is a man in love – with his craft, with his wife, with pretty much everything around him. He has learned to get past his blindness. And in doing so, he has become intensely aware of all the so-called commonplace things he might’ve overlooked before. He has not let his blindness be “the end of all existence.

“I just celebrated my 60th birthday in April,” Remaly continues. “I’ve never been in a better spot. I really, really enjoy my life. If someone had told me years ago that at 60, my sight would be gone [with] no chance of it coming back – [that] I’ve accepted it, embraced it, and moved on, I wouldn’t have believed it. I have a wonderful wife, my life partner. I see people all the time at the Y here whom I’m sometimes lucky enough to bring a smile to. There’s no doom and gloom in my life. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody, I’m thrilled to be me. So, that’s how I feel right now, and I don’t expect it to change.”

Photo by Alina Oswald.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bobbie's Earrings

     (This is a little off the beaten path for "Sketch People" -- but, then, so was Bobbie. In a world of pretty faces, she was, to paraphrase the late Jimmy Durante, an original.  So here's to you, Bobbie, wherever you are.--TJB)

My mother-in-law’s earrings are long and dangly. The tops are deep-purple beaded triangles with tiny white-and-purple hexagonal designs and black edges: loops of silver, white, and purple beads cascade down from those edges. They are colorful, exotic, sassy, opinionated, and totally “boss.”

They are very much like my mother-in-law.

Bobbie, like my husband Tim, was strong medicine: you couldn’t ignore either of them. They both had that “in-your-face” quality and could and would verbally flay anyone they thought a fool in twenty words or less. Actually, Bobbie could probably have done it without even taking the cigarette out of her mouth. Bobbie, I once told a mutual friend, would never stab anyone in the back: no, she’d come at him/her right up front, driving a tank and firing. And she could swear more classily than anyone I ever met. One evening, shortly before Tim and I were married, she was chatting with us when the phone rang. Someone from a local theater group was trying to get her to renew her subscription. When pressed for reasons, she bellowed, “Because the last season was such unmitigated shit!” Not just shit, mind you, but unmitigated shit.

She was definitely exotic, favoring colorful Indian-print fabrics, long earrings, and longer scarves. She loved Oriental art (the only business trips she ever accompanied my father-in-law, Bob, on were the ones to San Francisco so that she could scope out Chinatown) and tigers (she had tigers -- painted, china, and toy -- parading all around her house, and all of them were named). She had a playful sense of humor, naming her over-sized fuzzy slippers with the koala-bear faces “Simon & Simon” after the then-popular detective show.

We didn’t always agree with each other-- sometimes we were irritated or downright angry with each other -- but I always knew where I stood with her; and when she left a room, it was as if someone had turned the color down on a T. V. set.

We respected each other. She had been a reporter herself at one time; and while Tim and I were still dating, she secured me my first reporting job with The Farmington Valley Herald, the local weekly that she was an ad rep for. She was always interested in what I was working on, saying once to the room in general (she had a theatrical manner at times), “Tamathy” -- her pet nickname for me -- “is the only writer I know who gets paid for what she does.” She was ready to listen during the slow times, when the only light in the proverbial tunnel was a flickering little match that I was holding up by myself. “I’m a good in-between person, Tam,” she assured me with that light-up-the-room smile of hers. And she was.

But there was another side to Bobbie, I learned. For most of her life, she had battled with manic depression and had had several nervous breakdowns. I never witnessed them -- they’d occurred long before I appeared on the scene -- but Tim had, and he described them to me in detail. With lithium and that particular brand of toughness that was her trademark, however, she finally learned to keep her demons at bay.

There’s a line in the “Anne Boleyn” episode of The Six Wives of Henry VIII in which the condemned Anne, still holding out for her daughter Elizabeth’s rights, says to the archbishop, “I fight, Cranmer. For that is what I am made of. Fighting.” Those words could have been written for Bobbie. For when grief came to her, she wrestled with it, just as she had with her mental illness. The night that Tim’s van hydroplaned into a phone pole, killing him instantly, she and Bob came to me directly so that I wouldn’t have to learn the news from some impersonal stranger in a uniform. She told it to me straight, not letting herself cry until she’d gotten the words out. Then she quickly got a hold of herself and sat down to make a list of things that had to be done.

It was, I think, her only way of bringing order to a world that had gone suddenly, terribly, heart-breakingly wrong. Tim had been her youngest…her “changeling,” as she used to call him, although, in reality, they’d been so much alike, it had sometimes been hard to tell where one left off and the other began.

“I’m tough,” she told one of my friends offering condolences after the graveside service. The “I can take it” was implied if not said. And in the year-and-a-half that remained to her, I only saw that toughness crack a few times. Once was shortly after the accident: the company that Tim had worked for met with me at the house to discuss the benefits package. Bobbie and Bob were there, too.

Now I had a few things that I needed to say to Tim’s manager about some of the company’s policies, which, I believed, had contributed to the accident. Bobbie knew what I was planning to say -- was, indeed, more than ready to cheer me on -- and was seated at the table, waiting. I stood behind her and, placing my hands on her shoulders for confidence, threw my sizable rock into the company pond. In the silence that followed, Bobbie grabbed hold of my right hand and buried her face against it. But not a sound came out of her.

There was another crack on the New Year’s Day after the tragedy. Bobbie had come over to watch a video with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Marissa. I went upstairs to get a book I wanted to show my mother-in-law. Coming back down, I caught a glimpse of the hungry, utterly bereft look on Bobbie’s face as she held Tim’s child on her lap. I closed the book and stole quietly away, knowing that Marissa was doing all that anyone could do to ease that terrible ache in her grandmother’s heart.

Fighting might have been what Bobbie was made of, but even she couldn’t defeat the cancer that later ravaged her body like wildfire. Within two weeks, she was gone. But somehow she has never really felt gone to me -- in a large part, I suppose, because Marissa has grown up to be very like her “Grammie,” both in looks and personality. She even has Bobbie’s singing voice.

But there’s more to it than that. Bobbie was definitely a personality to be reckoned with. A friend of mine who knew her from her ad-rep days with the Herald remembered her coming into the store where he was working “with her fur coat and clipboard. She never asked you what you wanted -- she told you what you needed.”

The fur coat was fake, but the attitude was real. So, on days when I’m feeling a little unsure of my next step -- or need to metaphorically place my hands on someone’s shoulders while I’m taking it -- I don my sassy earrings. The force -- or, rather, The Bobbie -- is with me.