Tag Archives: American Literature

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Tutoring Bel Air I Go

3 May

DEAR READER,

I missed you; sorry about the hiatus! So: my mood improved. My sex life is another story…but it could be worse. Time to move from heart/soul/ body musings to the ever-fascinating world of WORK. One of my current positions is Tutor To The 1 Percent.

tutoring blog Heading into hills. jpgIt’s around four; I’m heading up Tower Drive, a narrow road with a sharp incline.  As I make my way up every Monday and Thursday, I think of that old board game Shoots and Ladders. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, AS USUAL.  I’m going to see Bianca, a six-year old with reading troubles. And to see Nathalia, her Russian nanny–always  in a white uniform, who has  trouble speaking English. I’m driving up, up, up from my flat in the flats of Beverly Hills to Bianca’s house in Bel Air. Her house is a modern multi-billion dollar home with a Ferrari, BMW, and Bentley parked in the makes-me-gasp-steep driveway. The floor of the front hall is glass, with goldfish swimming underneath.

It’s beautiful. It’s surreal. I don’t admire the rich, but amidst some disdainful thoughts are envious thoughts. I’d like to live up here. Shoots and Ladders, yes, and CANDYLAND. Someone’s side yard:

tutoring blog purple hill

The people I see out on the road look normal; I wonder if they feel normal, are normal. . .they are pulling into their driveways, walking their dogs. (I was going to take pictures for my blog, but thought better of it, imagining the headlines: WHILE PHOTOGRAPHING THE SUPER RICH, SUSPICIOUS TUTOR SHOT AND KILLED. VOYEURISM DOES NOT PAY.)

Bianca lives in a gated community.

tutoring blog GATE

I tap the secret code into the secret box.  Once inside, the road gets very winding, and the houses are very spectacular, architectural mind-fucks every one. There are virtual castles with turrets and small moats; there are Bau Haus grand pianos of buildings; there are mansions like Italian villas, mosaic-ed with gorgeous imported tile–all with operatic views of the sumptuous hills, soaring vistas of the mountains, cypress trees…and homes of the Other Very Rich.

tutoring blog view with trees framing

Of course, I feel as if I’m in a movie. The one about the professor who casts aside her perfectly nice life in a small upstate New York town to become Fresh Tutor of Bel Air.  (The plot is vague but I already have the actors picked out; more to be revealed!)  I park outside the gate in front of  Bianca’s house and enter Secret Code Number Two. A waterfall  in the neighbor’s yard whispers voluptuously. And then, Nathalia the nanny lets me in the door.

Bianca and her twin sister rush up the marble stairs to greet me: “Miss Kirsten!” they shout. They are well-behaved little girls, seemingly without airs. Bianca mentions her diamond stud earrings, talks about flying to Switzerland for Christmas,  the 100 dollars the tooth fairy gave her, but she isn’t bragging. At six, she thinks that’s how life works. In three months, I’ve seen their mother only three times; she is a pretty but ordinary woman in work out clothes who looks a little frail. One time she was huddled in a blanket by the swimming pool in 75-degree sunshine. Dad works in Vegas and Denver, and he SKYPES with his family several times a week. I googled him, and there seemed to be  nothing unusual about him except his bank account.

Once settled in her pink room with a luxury hotel view and bathroom, Bianca and I read some Dr. Suess and then Amelia Bedelia–which, according to Bianca “has too many large and incomprehensible words.” I don’t know enough about it, but think she might have dyslexia. Her twin is “the smart one,” Bianca  tells me, and I identify with Bianca, noting that her twin is bossy and loud, even though I get the feeling she’s just jealous that Bianca has a tutor.

Then it’s time to do some ESL work with Nathalia, and she and I talk about our weekends; I went to The Getty and she went to Huntington Gardens. She is about my age, blonde, has high arched eyebrows, an easy laugh and thick accent. Both of us working for this family creates, I like to think, a vague kinship. But I just turn up twice a week whereas Nathalia lives with them; I cannot begin to imagine this. On my way out, Nathalia gives me some Russian chicken meatballs  in a glass container. She often does this–without a word.

Climbing up the driveway past the Ferrari, the BMW SUV, and the Bentley, I huff and puff delicious flowery air and look at the sun hovering on the horizon. I let myself out of the gate and collapse  inside the Pruis. Wending my way back out of the CandyLand/Shoots and Ladders movie set, I fantasize about hiding in the bushes until dark and then…robbing a house? No, not with those alarm systems. The fantasy isn’t like that exactly. It’s about knowing the life–with servants, and operatic vistas, and a million precious things behind lock and key. The wealth is so close, it almost seems like you could blink your eyes and  just take up residence in one house or another as if you belonged there and always had.

tutoring blog house with palms

Jay Gatsby had that plan, and succeeded. Until he drowned. Driving down the dark lanes, I let go the fantasy, and stick a plastic fork retrieved from my glove compartment into a chicken meatball and silently thank Nathalia.

The lives up here will never seem real to me. (As Tutor Of The Hills, I barely seem real to me!) It’s somewhere over the rainbow: up the hill, through the gate, down the driveway, into the marbled hall of a mysteriously rich life, my sandals clicking across the glass floor with  fish swimming, trapped beneath. I’m a visitor. And though I’m not a robber, I am stealing. Along with the plastic utensils, my notebook sits in the glove compartment. Filled with notes.

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Sin City Hours With Henry James Or, Ambassadors Without Cause

19 Sep

It was after Natasha and I landed in Las Vegas and we were in the opulent lobby of the Wynn Hotel that I felt Henry James’ presence. He wasn’t there voluntarily. I’d channelled him. Sin City side of Encore building and skyThe Wynn is one of the more luxurious of Vegas resorts. Why did I channel James then and there? Because he was a PERFECT date for the occasion. An amused and wise observer of people who behave badly/stupidly/weakly in the face of wealth and power, a perfect gentleman himself  (never married, in the closet), and one of my favorite writers. A good dresser who never drank too much.

“Kirsten Wasson, why have you channelled me?”

“Henry. I’ve always loved you. And you need to see Vegas.”

“What is Vegas?”

“It’s a country where  Christopher Newman would naively feel at home,  Daisy Miller would love and  die,  Maggie Verver would see the terrible meaning of the beautiful, over-priced  golden bowl, and Lambert Strether would go along for the ride. (Sort of.)”

Henry looked a little tattered and worse for wear. He was pale, his collar was askew, and eyebrows excessively bushy. “I already wrote about all that.”

Henry_James_by_Sargent_1913

“But Henry,” I smoothed his lapel, “This is  Sin City!!  There’s a fake Paris, fake Venice! You’ve just gotta see it. AND you will find the particular narrative–one which involves subtle pretense, blurred moral lines, and a kind of threesome–to be just your cup of tea. Or in this case, your Blackberry Cosmopolitan.”

Henry sighed and gazed out the window at the six different swimming pools in one direction, at the gold phallic Trump tower in the other.

 

Sin City trump tower

“Look, HJ,” I was getting testy.”You OWE me. Do you have ANY idea how many times I taught The American to Freshman?”

“It didn’t pass muster with your students?”

“Let’s just say that not every eighteen-year old gets your irony, your devotion to ambivalence and ambiguity, your fascination with class bias, not to mention the obsessive attention to interior design details.”

Henry James glared at me; I shouldn’t have said that. “I mean… they did like it eventually, that’s my point. Without me there would be hundreds of young people who didn’t come to grasp what happens to Newman in Paris, not to mention why, years after you published The American,  you changed the last few lines–which revises drastically how we see Newman and his fate.”

“Oh.  Well, alright then. Sounds like you did some good. Where’s our room?”

SUCCESS OF MY LIFE, DEAR READER!

We followed Natasha who, although she has not read James,  knows how to behave like one  of his beautiful, forthright heroines with a secret– in any set of circumstances.

Sin City with Henry James NIcolle walking

“HJ,” I said, “Here’s the lowdown. This is clandestine trip. We have to be discreet.”

I then realized I was talking to the person whose face appears in the dictionary under discreet.

“You didn’t channel Oscar Wilde.” He rolled his eyes and then noticed the casino.

Sin City casino

“What on earth?” He adjusted his monocle.
“Those are slot machines, and then there’s poker and craps further back. Gambling.”

“I know what gambling is, Madame K. My grandfather was a drinker and gambler and it almost ruined my father’s life.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot.”

We were both embarrassed when we got to the room (which happened to be paid for by a man we’ll call Sergei):

 

sin city bedroom

 

I’d asked for twin beds. Henry excused himself to the bathroom, and I called the front desk and asked for another room. Then we went to the pool.

Sin City with Henry James my knees at pool

There is nothing I love more than a blazing hot day and an almost empty pool and beach chair. Not something HJ enjoys.

But he does like a cabana.

Sin City 208 Cabana

I got this particular one for him because of 208. That was my address on Pennsylvania Avenue for 18 years. Henry hid inside happily, observing, writing. He was thrilled there were crows in Vegas.

Sin City With crow in bush

Later we walked around and found St. Mark’s place:

sin city  St Mark's placeIt wasn’t exactly the place he’d written about:sin city art of shavingI quoted HJ to HJ  (Italian Hours): “Piazza San Marco is the most ornamented corner…as you sit in your gondola, the footways that in certain parts edge the canals assume to the eye of importance of a stage, and the Venetian figures strike you as members of an endless dramatic troupe.” Exactly. Especially in Vegas Piazza San Marco, where it’s all a facade, and the water is chlorinated and two feet deep.

Sin City GondolaHe and I did not rent a gondola; we went shopping.

sin city Barneys and Michael KorsIt was I who noticed first that  “Just” looked like “Lust,” but Henry was only a beat behind. While we shopped, I explained that I was a paid companion on this trip. Natasha’s friend Sergei, desiring the pleasure of her company but being occupied by by certain familial obligations  concerning his son Chad had offered me the beautiful position of accompanying Natasha, providing a dining companion during Sergei’s paternal occupations and assuring that there was a buffering presence between son, lover, and the man himself.

“That sentence is a little convoluted, Kirsten.”

“Pot. Calling. Kettle. Black. DUDE!”

I don’t need to tell you that HJ did not respond to my pointed remark. Or to being called “Dude.” Time to buy our hero a cocktail.

sin city cocktails

After a few sips of the sweet and sour concoction, my author seemed to relax, and from his bar stool he looked around us. Out one window was a topological view, a slice of Sin City.
Sin City view of pool from above

And out the other, this, whatever this is: sin city outdoors flower light “May I have have another cocktail?” asked Henry. He’d sucked his first down in seconds flat. Natasha and Sergei were having dinner together that evening, so the night was ours!

Henry James is a master of the unsaid. So I guessed what he was thinking and it had to do with:  vulgarity, the spoils of American new money, the degradation of human ethics, and probably Gilbert Osmand–the nefarious character in Portrait of A Lady (played by John Malkovich in the film.)

“I rather like Vegas,” he smiled slyly. “But really, Madame K, what are you doing here?”

“I told you, I’m Natasha’s paid companion. So she has someone to chill with, when not with Sergai. When Sergai is busy with his son.”

His eyes closed. “You said a threesome, but it’s really a couple and an extra. As in Wings of the Dove, or Portrait of A Lady, The Ambassadors, Daisy Miller, even Turn of the Screw in a sense–those twisted little children and the twisted little governess–outside, looking in.”

“Henry James, are you calling me a twisted little governess?” (I have to admit I wished he were. That would be the second SUCCESS OF MY LIFE.)

A few cocktails later….

Sin City drinks at Andrea'sThe sun had set and the fake waterfall was glowing.

SIn City water fall at nightAnd then Henry said, “You’re not the governess. You’re Maisie. You were from the beginning. Observing the adults. The watchful child.”

He was referring to What Maisie Knew, his novel about a little girl observing her parents marriage crack into a thousand shards of passion and mistake.

“I’d rather be the twisted governess.”

“I know,” said Henry fingering his cravat. “But you’re not. You tend to be in the middle of  things, but only barely involved,  teetering on a chimera of balance, until said  balance loses its ballast.”

This was not a Vegas  conversation.

“So…what are you, Henry? Freud before Freud?” It was time for this conversation to end.

“Well I’m not Christopher Newman, Madame K. I’ve been around the block a few times.”

“Oh Henry, put me to bed.”

He led me to my room, made me brush my teeth, helped me into my pjs, and kissed me on the forehead.

“Good Night Kirsten Wasson.”  He walked to the door. “There is nothing wrong with being an observer or outsider. Just take good notes.” And then he was gone.

I slept like the dead. In the morning I got up early to go find Henry James–at the cabana. But it was empty. I went to the front desk and asked if he’d checked out. There was no record of a Mr. James having stayed at in the Wynn.  I went back to the pool. Empty, so early in the day.

Sin City Empty pool closed umbrellas

I knew he’d been there, with me. We had been ambassadors together, both knowing on not knowing the subtext, both gleaning  and not the meaning of the confusing maze that is human passion, mistake, resignation, and moral/emotional/spiritual balance. At the end of The Ambassadors, Maria Gostrey speaks to the outsider/ambassador Lambert Strether, admitting that certain of his perceptions are accurate.  “It isn’t so much your being ‘right’–it’s your your horrible sharp eye that makes you so.” I lay down on a damp, chilly chaise.  Ah, the “horrible sharp” eye. Taking it all in, taking notes.

Sin City Crow on beach chairAlone at the pool, just a few crows flapping and cawing like some inarticulate moral compass. This was delicious, the way it is delicious to ready about an alienated character in a Henry James novel.

(Thank you, Dear Sergei, for a wonderful trip to the land of Vegas. And thank you, Dear HJ, for the company, insight, and for tucking me into bed. What happens in Vegas…)