Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The wader

I saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron yesterday.  It was at City Park in New Orleans. I was walking across a little bridge into a part of the park that's especially fine for birdwatching.  I looked down, and there it was.  It was wading in the shallow water, looking for prey.

It was taking slow steps on its yellow legs through the water.  Its steps were delicate and considered, as if it were walking among broken glass, trying to locate the single unmarred spot to put its foot.  

It looked up at me.  Herons seldom look at you purposefully, like a dog might.  You can't be sure they are because in many cases they are stock still and nothing about them moves.  Even if the eye on the side of their head is pointed your way, it's not necessarily focused on you.

In this case it was.  It made me feel oddly uneasy, as if it could see something about me that I didn't want seen. I wondered if it had been corrupted to the expectation of being fed.  But I doubted it.  These birds have a dignified aloofness that seems incorruptible.

Herons are often solitary and seem quite content with that life.  I am not.  I was with someone until a few months ago.  But here I am.



What a beautiful bird, with its painted yellow streak on top and sides of its head, the rest of the head black.  

You are either thrilled by the sight of birds, and especially of some birds like this one, or you are not. You can't persuade anyone to swoon over a bird just as you can't persuade anyone to love a person.  You do, or you don't.

I wished I had loved her.  We were together for about four years.  I called it off.  She lingers with me.  She's part of my body.  I know her so well I can tell you how she would move and react and talk in most situations.  I have an accrued store of experiences we shared that will never leave me.  I hold them preciously, even if, as I believe, she does not.  She won't speak to me. 

Now, I walk on, solitary, treading delicately the path of my existence.

I hold her goodness in my heart. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Getting tested

I live in New Orleans.  Hot spot.  Thought I might get tested.  Until now, though, I didn't want to impede anyone who really needed to be testedthose with symptoms, those in high-risk categories.

But now the city is saying testing is free, and there are no lines at the following locations...

So this morning I go to CrescentCare Health Clinic on Elysian Fields to be tested. 

The test area is in the clinic's indoor parking lot.  I'm wearing a mask.  I'm met by a man wearing a mask who asks me if I have any symptoms.  "Well, I've had a cough for about three weeks, and I get tired in the afternoon," I say.  I feel sheepish saying this.  It's just a damn cough.

I'm directed to the far side of the parking lot where there is a table staffed by two masked people seated with computers.  One gets up and walks to me.  They ask me a few questions about symptoms, take a snap of my ID and insurance card and give me a form to fill out.  I sit and fill it out, answering the same questions I have a zillion times before.  One, though, I have never seen before: "Do you identify as straight, gay...." I stopped reading.  WTF?  I leave it unanswered.

There is only person ahead of me, seated at a discreet distance.  There are three testing areas behind the greeting desk that look like large polling booths.  Blue curtains drawn shut.  A few people in scrubs and cloth masks plus those plastic SWAT team-like shields over their face. 

I'm called.  A man beckons me to one of the booths, pulls aside the curtain and asks me sit down.  It's a simple plastic chair.  There is a mobile AC unit (high today 82 degrees) and a standing mechanical gizmo.

The doctor enters.  He gives me his name, which, unfortunately, I immediately forget.  He takes my temperature (98.6), oxygen (good).  Then he reaches for the infamous long Q-tip, or whatever it's called.

"I assume you know about this," he says, holding up the long probe.

"I do."

"It's uncomfortable."

"It looks like it."

"The best thing to do is to bend your head way back and look up to the ceiling.  I take a sample from both nostrils."

"Ok."

He shoves the thing down my nose to my throat.  No, it doesn't feel great, but it's over in a blink.  I can think of many tests where things are shoved up you that are a lot worse. 

"You'll get your results in two days," he says.  

There's something very likeable about him.  He's concise, cheerful, and he inspires confidence.

The first guy comes back.  "Let me verify your phone number.  Is it...."

"646-267...," I say.

"Oh, a New Yorker," the doctor says.  646 is a New York City area code.  "I have a 917 code," he says, another classic NYC area code.

"Did you do your training in New York?" I ask.

"Yes.  At NYU." New York University. 

"Oh, so at Bellevue?"

"Yes." I can see his eyes brighten even through his plastic shield. 

"A friend of mine who is a doctor says that if she were gravely ill, that's the hospital she'd want to be taken to."

He smiles in agreement.  "It's a great hospital." 

I could write a entire post about Bellevue.  Most people have heard of it, but what they probably think of is a place for the mentally ill.  It has that capacity, but the hospital is far more than that.  It's the oldest public hospital in the U.S., for one thing.  It's a public hospitalnot a private one for the rich.  I lived in New York for thirty-five years, and for most of that time, I had a bicycle.  I would ride my bike past the hospital from time to time. It's at First Avenue, between 27th and 28th Streets, not a very interesting part of the city.  The only major landmark nearby is the Midtown Tunnel.  New York has a few lost areas, little pockets that are sad, featureless, devoid of energy, style, spirit, and a distinct culture.  Not every part of the city is memorable.  I would venture to say not that many New Yorkers, save the sick, have even seen this hospital. 


It always seems, for me at least, that all roads lead to New York.  I only talk to the doctor a few minuteshe has important things to do, after allbut in those minutes I feel like I'm speaking my native language again while for years having to speak another language in a country not my own.  The pull of the city is fierce, still.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The man in the store

I shop at my local grocery, Robert's, in New Orleans, between 6am and 7am.  This time is sequestered for people over sixty.  I am well over sixty, in fact coming upon seventy-five in a few months.  (Holy Mother of God.)  Nevertheless, it's one small perq of being old, and I accept it gratefully.

This particular day, Saturday, I arrive at Robert's at 6:30am.  It always feels slightly ridiculous to shop for groceries this early in the morning.  I pick things dully, and I always forget to get something I needed to get.  

The aisles are full of stacked boxes of produce.  Employees are madly rushing to unpack them.  This is not a normal work pace.  It's impressive to see how quickly and adroitly they work.  There are no excessive gestures.  I don't know how long they've been working, but I suspect even before the store opens at 6am.

I push my cart down all the aisles, picking out things, not really knowing if I want or need them.

Ah, yes, I remember.  I want sesame oil.  I'm going to stir fry something later, and I want that sesame touch to make it authentic.  But I can't find it.  It's not there in the exotic foods section.

I head for the cashier.  A man emerges from an office door and points me to a register.

"I'll take you here," he says. I begin unloading stuff from the cart.  We're both wearing masks.

"Do you have sesame oil?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies, "we do.  It's in aisle one, with the olive oils."

"Can I go and get it now?"

"Sure.  I'll check you out in the meantime."

He's energetic, polite, helpful.  He makes me feel I matter.  I turn and head for aisle one.

Once there, I search.  Can't find it.  Hmm.  Oh, yes, there it is.  Expensive though.  Do I want to spend that much?  I ponder.  Better make up my damn mind.  The man is waiting.  I grab the bottle and head back to the register.  He has come from behind the register and is just about to walk to find me.  He's already loaded my stuff into my cart for me.

"You found it?" he asks.

"Yes, thanks."  He has a name tag that says "Store Manager."  He's probably here every day.  I see a wedding ring.  He probably has a family.  I wonder how he feels, his wife feels, about his being here every day, possibly risking getting sick, even worse. Would I be able to do that?  Probably not.   

I pay.  

"Have a good day," he says to me as I wheel the cart to the door. 

I don't think I've ever believed anyone who has told me thatuntil this morning, in this grocery store, from the lips of this most gracious, sunny man.


Monday, May 11, 2020

Little Richard

I was ten years old when, in 1955, Little Richard's recording of "Tutti Frutti" hit the scene.  I was living in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  The schools were still segregated.  As was much of everything else.

I was trying to describe to my daughter what the music was like before Little Richard and the other rock 'n' roll pioneers saved us all.  The only thing I could come up with was that it was like a lake of tapioca.  America tried to keep it that way.  Pat Boone covered "Tutti Fritti."  This of course was a desperate effort to make this clearly black music white.  For most of us, it didn't work.  Even at ten years old, I knew Pat Boone didn't give me anything I wanted.  Listen to him and see for yourself.  He has the unique ability to take everything important out of a song and leave you with absolutely nothing.

Little Richard gave us everything.  He came out of nowhere!  Like a meteorite! It's hard to describe what effect he had on me and on thousands of kids like me.  His singing bypassed all roadblocks and leapt inside you.  It made you want to dance.  It made you want to scream.  How could you keep still?  You couldn't!  And it was LOUD.  He sang the hell out of those songs, "Long Tall Sally," "The Girl Can't Help It," "Good Golly, Miss Molly," "Lucille," and, my all-time favorite, "Slippin' and Sliddin'."  Then we got to see him on TV!  He's one of those great performers who when you saw him you got double your pleasure.  He was wild!  He was insane!  Dig his version of "Tutti Frutti."  (There's a brief glance of Bill Haley in the video.)  Even subdued for American TV, you can feel it.



Did I understand "Tutti Frutti?"  No!  YES!  I understood what was important to understand.  That was that the song was rockin' and rollin' and that I loved hearing it. That suddenly being ten years old was fantastic.  Give me more!  All I'll I had to do was buy his record.  I could play it again and again and feel soooooo good.  

Thank you, Little Richard.  For everything.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Wish you were here

"Mothers are all slightly insane," Holden Caulfield says at one point in The Catcher in the Rye. I always knew what he meant. It was never a quote that I puzzled over. In five words, he nailed it.
                                                                
My mother holding me, age 7 weeks

Yes, mothers are all slightly insane, some more slightly than others. They're insane because they can never be certain, ever, that their child(ren) is(are) completely without harm. They are on some kind of alert twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Some part of them never sleeps. You can't be that attentive and worried for that long and not be slightly crazy.  Combine this worry with powerlessnessas soon as the boy or girl steps out of the house (out of the room, actually), they can't do a thing to protect them.
                                                                           
Holding her twins with me pondering. She had three children within eleven months

I think of my own mother, of her difficult life, and of her living alone after her divorce. For years. I think of all that she tried to do with that ache and pull toward her children. I think of her carrying that ache of loving me and that love unrequited, and how can you stand that day after day year after year? She used to say to me, "I get lonely for you, Richie.  I think of her probably feeling she hadn't been a good mother, and how that must have devastated her after worrying about us so deeply and so continuously.  I think of her bright, sharp mind, love of writing and reading and of her unblemished soul. 
                                                                               
In Old Greenwich, CT, sometime in the 1970s

It's too late to tell her that I love her. I tied to do justice to her memory in a piece called "The Wheaton Girl". She went to Wheaton College. "The happiest days of my life," she told me. I doubt she'd like it. She didn't want her weaknesses exposed, and who would? I wrote another about watching her hang out the wash when I was a kid. Still not right. I'm not here to say anything silly like, tell your mom you love her before it's too late. I'm just here to say to you, Mom, that you deserved better. But I can't. Because you're dead. I think about you every day. I hope you've found peace.
                                                                               
The only time my mother saw my daughter, Becky

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Air

I went out shopping early this morning.  My local supermarket has the 6am-7am time slot reserved for seniors.  I am a senior.  It's one of the few advantages about growing old.  I would, however, trade that advantage in a second for a few years scratched off my tally and happily shop at noon.

When I walked to my car earlier, about 6am, dawn was at term.  Birth was imminent.  The morning was rife with the anticipation of the sun's arrival.  But it was still below the horizon.  I breathed in the air.  It was as fresh as can be, newly minted, glorious, and it tasted delicious.  This early morning air, uncorrupted by anythingcars, trucks, dogs, peopleis pure.  It's heady, and when I took great whiffs into my lungs, it was as if I were drinking from the fountain of youth.  Three of four deep lungfuls, and I was younger, stronger, healthier.  It wasn't going to last long, this 100% purity, this essence of newcool, sweet and invigorating.  Soon the sun would rise and slowly warm the air, relieving it of its coolness.  Soon cars would pass by, corrupting it with noise and odors.

Not yet.  For a half-hour or so I could breathe in pure optimism, hope, youth.  Better than the rarest wine, a gift to my lungs.

A breath of fresh air.

Somewhere in Walden, Thoreau declares that he never smoked tobacco or, for that matter, had any kind of artificial stimulus.

What, he asked himselfand usgot him going?

Morning air!

Thoreau, you, me, everybody. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Reading to her

We began reading to our daughter almost as soon as she was born.

Her mother was a children's book editor, so she brought home scores of books.  Many I'd never heard of.  I really hadn't had much experience since my own kid days reading The Little Engine That Could a zillion years earlier.

I don't know of any child who doesn't like being read to.  I mean young children, who can fit easily in your lap or are alert in their crib when you start to read to them.

And I can think of few things I did as a parent that I loved more than reading to my daughter.

She was quiet, eyes following the pictures, listening to the words.  These were stories, and they held her attention.  More than that, they aroused her imagination.  And I was the one reading to her.  We were both in this together.  The idea that she could be so captivated, so enthralled by a book, that she wanted me to turn the pages, was simple and exciting.

I began to see her tastes!  She liked certain books more than others.  Why?  I didn't know.  It was just thrilling that she had preferences.  That spoke to her being an individual, which, in the end, was something so good to see as a parent.  Or it was for me, at least.

It's bedtime.  She's still in her crib.  So, maybe she's a year and a half?   I'm sitting in a chair next to her crib with a book. I lower the outside rail so I can show her the book more easily.  What is the book?  Let's say The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, the same person who wrote Goodnight, Moon.  I love this book, and I want my daughter to know the story.

She has the flaming-est red hair you've ever seen.  She's been fed, bathed and changed.  Essential needs met.  She's in her one-sy.  On her back.  All she has to do is look and listen.  And while she does, she does little things with her body, one of which is to put her foot in her mouth, which looks incredibly natural and even beneficial.

"Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away," the book begins.  I turn the pages, one by one, and read the words, changing my voice and intonation to match the characters.  Then, at last, bunny reunited with his mother, I close the book.  "The end," I say.  I say this every time I finish reading her a book.  "Ok, sweetheart, it's time to go to sleep," I say.



She doesn't look tired.  "Read another!" she says.

I do.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Here!

Everything becomes not taken for granted.

Breathing, to start.  Maybe, like me, you aren't a Buddhist, or especially mindful, and so weren't paying a lot of attention to your breathing.  But now perhaps you are.  Still breathing.  Pretty good deal, isn't it?

Then there's the sky. Wide and gray or blue, or white and blue, it's there.  This majestic semicircle.  Always changing, providing a new palette.  A fresh drama of curiously-shaped clouds that move sometimes, sometimes don't.  A sky that can be a wide wash of gray or a clear azure.  That can erupt in jagged white bolts followed by jump-inducing thunder.  A sky that can send our roots rain.

Let me not forget light.  I mean the opposite of darkness.  The slow drawing aside of the night's curtain every morning to reveal the sun's emergence.  Not much is reliable these days.  In fact, is anything reliable?  The sun is.  I use its steadfastness every day to give me an anchor.  Once again, there it is.  Climbing upward.  Unfaltering. 

The senses.  W.H. Auden called them "Precious Five."  Sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste.  What these times have made abundantly clear is that death is real, it's near, it's possible.  The place I put death in my daily life before this was somewhere in the remote part of the Outer Banks of my mind.  Not anymore.  So, seeing things.  Smelling things.  Tasting things, touching and hearing things.  With gratitude.

If this situation has done anything, it's stopped time.  Or slowed it down considerably. Forced not to do most everything we used to do, we're left to observe and experience what is directly before us, in every sense.

For those of us who are not sick or struggling, a gift many of us had forgotten.

Six visions to be grateful for

Vision #1

I am walking in the city of Paris for the first time.  It is 1972.  I am twenty-seven years old. I will be living here for six months.

I have never seen streets like these, some wind and curve and some are straight but all of them have buildings of such stateliness and accomplishment on either side.  I don't recognize some of the smells.  I don't recognize the way the phones work, the Metro, the busses, how you buy things.  This goes beyond language.  I don't understand that all women in shops must be addressed as "Madame."  It is uncomfortable but liberating.  I am liberated from the notion, so beaten into my head, that America is the best and only place there is.  I look around at the river Seine, and I see the Pont Neuf, and the Rue St. Jacques and the beautiful older women so confident and purposeful, and my real education begins.

My traveling companion and I have somehow managed to find an apartment on the villa d'Alésia, in the 14th arrondissement.  It is a sculptor's studio with tall opaque glass windows that face the street and can be thrown open to let the world come in.

We live in a neighborhood where there is a wine store where you get your litre bottles, without labels, filled with wine that costs .50cts a bottle.  There is a butcher shop that sells only horsemeat. 

I, like so many thousands of others through the years, discover that I've never eaten bread before.  That I never understood the idea of individual dignity in a café.  That I didn't see the nobleness of a life as a waiter.  That I didn't understand time, that Notre Dame existed as it does now in the 14th century.  That building began in the 12th century.  How can I process time like that?

All of this is mine for the months I live in Paris.

This city completes me, as the writer James Salter wrote.  It makes me the person I was meant to be.  I am coming to the place I have never been before but to which I have always belonged.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pamela


New York, 1985.  A sharp fall Saturday.  Early afternoon.  The air smelled cool and delicious.  It was invigorating, like a shot of pure oxygen.  I was walking up Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village when I saw her.  She was standing on the corner of Eleventh Street about a block away.  I could see her curly red hair in all its wild abundance, a crimson beacon.  She was unmistakable.  She didn’t recognize me at first, but as I got closer, her face became bright, as if it were a sun emerging from behind a cloud.

Pamela.  

It was about 1pm.  I would never have seen her out before eleven.  She was nocturnal.  When you saw her in the daytime, it was as if you’d awakened a sleeping owl.  Daytime was alien to her.  It always seemed as if she were adapting to it.  The expression, “groping in the dark” needed to be “groping in the light” for Pamela.

“Pamela!” I said.
She blinked, found the source of the words, then she laughed a beat or two.

“Hi, hello,” she said.  Once again, I realized how tall she was, probably 5’ 10”.  It was difficult to say because of the fullness of her hair.  “What are you up to?” she said.

“Taking a walk. Such an incredible day. What about you?”

She had on a navy-blue pea coat. She wore a silk scarf tied in a series of complex, appealing swirls about her neck with a broad blue ribbon around the back of her hair.  She always dressed with flair, with panache.  I used to ask her, “How do you always dress so well? If I gave you a pair of galoshes and a towel for clothes, you’d look great.”
She’d laughagain, one or two beats.  “I don’t think about it.”

So, there she was.  When I said the word “walk” to her, she frowned slightly.  She was not fond of exercise.
“I’m still waking up,” she said.  Just behind us, looking like a castle waiting to be sieged, was the Jefferson Market Library.  A big, red brick anomaly that I loved.  I glanced at the library clock. It was one-fifteen.

“I’m meeting Wilhem for brunch,” she said.  She had full lips.  She had the wan skin of redheads.
“Wilhem?”

“Didn’t I tell you?  I’ve got a new boyfriend.  I’m in love.”
“Wilhem?  What’s that name?”

“Dutch.  He’s Dutch.”
“How’d you meet him?”

“I met him at a party.  I’m a goner.  He’s going to ruin me.”
“What’s he do?”

“He does lots of things.  Right now he works in a gallery in Soho.  He’s got lots of ideas,” she said.  
“I’d like to meet this guy,” I said.

She continued her half-convincing lament.  “I’m a goner. I’m like a teenager.  I can’t think straight. Help me.  I’m his sex slave.  It’s pathetic.”  She laughed at herself.

I couldn’t help but think of that Joni Mitchell line, “Help me, I’m falling in love again.”
“Pamela,” I said, “it sounds like it’s a little too late for help.”  I felt a pang of envy.

“Too late,” she said, as if repeating some kind of curse. “Too late.  Yes, it’s too late.”
I left her there in her predicament and went off on my Saturday walk.  She might be helpless, but, unlike me on this beautiful fall day in New York, she was in love.

Pamela

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The agony and ecstasy of Easter


Easter, 1953.

It was a small church in the country, about five miles from where we lived in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  This is where my mother took us every Sunday—my brother, sister and me.  It was an Episcopal church built with brick and wood like so many buildings in that part of southeastern Virginia, marked and influenced by the colonial past.  We went reluctantly, my brother and I, especially in the summer, when baseball and barefooted freedom called to us.  But there was no question of not going.

I knew some of the people who came and some my mother knew and some we only knew from those Sundays in church.  

In this little Virginia church there were two days that were the mightiest, the most significant.  They were Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Though they were two days apart, the two days could not have been more different.

We usually went to church on Good Friday. We had been taught the story in Sunday school, and the minister had led us up to this day each Sunday.  We knew what was going to happen.  We knew that Jesus was going to be nailed to the cross.  But part of me didn’t want to believe.  Part of me didn’t want to believe that his Father was going let his son die.  It couldn’t be! As the time went by in the church, and the sad words from the Bible were read by the minister, I kept hoping that God would save his only son from dying.  Maybe this time it would be different.

When the minister read those lines that Jesus said, “It is finished,” as he gave up the ghost, despair came over me.  I felt a great sadness sweep through the church as well, as dark as the clouds that the Bible says covered the sky the afternoon Jesus was crucified.  I went home with my mother feeling gloomy.  It was a dark day in every way. Saturday was as well.  

Then, at last, Easter Sunday.  The one day you had to be in church.  We dressed in our finest.  My mother wore a wide-brimmed hat, a lovely dress, and she wore white gloves that inched up her forearms. 

When we walked into the church, it was festooned with flowers.  Sprawling, exorbitant arrangements everywhere, by the altar, and along the sides of the church.  Easter came at the same time as our Virginia spring, so the windows of the church were thrown open and the smells from the flowers from outdoors entered and flowed about.  Everything was bursting with promise.  The women and girls were dressed in bright dresses, yellows I remember, chiefly, and they all wore elaborate Easter hats.  They looked remarkable.  Jesus had risen from the dead!  He had come back from the dead and had walked the earth and then ascended into heaven to be with his father.

Everyone was relieved and smiling and we sang the celebratory hymns in gratitude and hope. 

After the service we shook each other’s hands and wished each other Happy Easter.  The Lord Had Risen! Praise the Lord!  Everyone was joyous.  From great despair to great joy in one weekend.  My little body could hardly contain such wide swings of emotion.

We rode back home in my mother’s car.  If the day was warm, and it often was, the windows we would be down and the sweet breeze would come into backseat of the car. 

In a few years I would stop feeling these things as if they actually happened to a man who walked the earth.  I would still go to church on Easter, though, still love the words and the music and the flowers and love seeing the women in their fine dresses and hats.  But I would never again feel as I did as a boy in 1953 in Virginia that everything was so wrong with the world and then, just a few days later, suddenly, in a burst of wonder and awe, feel that everything was right with the world.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Letter from the Crescent City


I'm sitting at a coffee shop on Royal Street in the Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans, not far from the French Quarter.  It's 9am on a Sunday.  Aside from me, two people are here, not including the owner and the barista.  It's early, though, for this city.  I asked the owner, Fred, how business was.  "Not bad."  But he's not complacent.  He's sanitizing the hell out of tables and door handles.  Will he shut down?  "I may have to."

1400 miles away, in New York City, my daughter lives.  I was supposed to see her one-woman show last week, but she urged me not to come.  It would make her too anxious to have me there.  I'm 74.  Prime real estate for the virus.  So, I didn't go, missing an event a father shouldn't miss.  I know. There are a lot more serious situations.  Thousands like mine, many much worse.

Do I feel guilty asking the gods to take special care of my daughter, to protect her, and to guard her from harm?

No.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

A very great and very funny French writer

French writers.

They're of two sorts, IMO.  One are the writers who draw form their minds.  To wit: Corneille and Racine.  Voltaire and Sartre.  I think many French see themselves as intellectual aristocrats, and that's one reason they worship those dudes.

But the other great French writers, those who write from the heartnot without great skill and mental prowessare the giants, to my mind.

At the pinnacle, Molière and Balzac.

I doubt anyone would contest Balzac.  But I would wager most French wouldn't place Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka, Molière, at the very top.  I'm on shaky ground, of course, not being French.  How dare I!  Well, as the French say, enfoiréRoughly translatedwell, look it up.

One reason, I think, is because Molière is funny.  Comic writers have always securely occupied a second rung in literature, never the first.  Which is fucking ridiculous.  

But who is not one of the greatest writers who ever lived if not Cervantes, a comic writer to the marrow?  

Molière
Molière (1622-1673) was and IS funny.   He's more than that, natch.  A great satirist. (Got him in trouble.) but, in the end, he makes you laugh.  Still, 350-odd years later.

To wit.  In his play, Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid), a doctor is trying to woo a young woman.  To entice her, he proposes:

"...I invite you to come see one of these days, to amuse yourself, the dissection of a woman, about whom I'll lecture."

The woman's servant drily replies:

"A very agreeable amusement.  There are some who would take their lady love to a play, but a dissection is something much more gallant."

A scene from an American production of The Imaginary Invalid
To get an idea of how brilliant Molière was/is, all you need to do is to check out any of Richard Wilbur's translations. They are masterpieces in themselves.  

In fact, Le Malade imaginaire was Molière's last play.  Sick with TB, he insisted, in true theatrical tradition, that the show must go on.  He collapsed and died shortly thereafter.  He was refused burial in sacred ground because he was an actor.  WTF?  Never mind that he was also an author.  144 years later, the French woke up and had his remains transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

What I would give to see what he would do with our present times.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Art for art's sake, and ours

Went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days ago.  (Umpeenth time.)  Perfect museum daygray, rainy.  Walked three hours, randomly.  The Met is so cached with art, it's hard to fathom.   

Yes, Met's a big place.  That's not the subject of today's monologue, though. 

The subject is the splendor of what we've made in the brief time we've inhabited this blessed plot.

You don't need me to inform you of the destruction and pain humans have caused.  That's The NeverEnding Story.

But so is art.  

To spend three hours in the Met walking aimlessly as you would down the streets of a foreign city, is to drink draughts of panoramic beauty.

In the Met can you experience the sheer array of thousands of years of human artistic efforts.  You can see Egyptian jewelry from four thousand years ago crafted by an anonymous master...

Necklace of Princess Sithathoryunet, ca. 1880 B.C., Middle Kingdom, Egypt
..and a somberly inspiring view of New York buildings seen from a bridge painted by Edward Hopper.

"From Williamsburg Bridge" Edward Hopper 1928
 You can see an almost perfectly preserved Etruscan chariot...

Etruscan bronze chariot, 6th century B.C.

...and, a short stroll away, a silk and metal textile by a contemporary Ghanaian master.

Textile by El Anatsui, Ghana, 2006
Etc.

We see enough of ourselves at our worst.

It's helpful, once every while, to see ourselves at our best.  

Monday, February 24, 2020

Unrequested

I board the crosstown bus with two friends.  All seats taken.  But ride will be short.  So, no sweat, standing, holding on to steel rail.

Woman seated just next to me looks up.  "Would you like to sit?" she asks.  I'm assuming she doesn't mean me.  Butshe's looking directly at me.  At me.  What, I think?  What would prompt her to ask this absurd question?

I suddenly remember I'm 74.  And I guess I must look it.  This I hardly ever remember.  That is, that I must look 74.  But to her, I suppose, I'm an old guy.

I take action.  "You're offering me your seat?????"  I say to her.  I have a strange, wild look in my eye.

"Uh...yes..." she says, with a slight tone of caution.

"So I suppose you think I'm old???"

"No, no...I...I just..."

I yank her up from her seat in one sure move.  Then, telling everyone to stand back, I lift her above my head and begin twirling her around and around, à la early professional wrestling. She's actually pretty heavy, but I'm surprised at my strength.  I suppose it's the adrenaline of anger.

"Offer me your seat, will you??"  I cry as I increase my twirling speed.  "Ha ha ha ha!!  Now, what do you say?  Now, who needs a seat???!!!!!"  I see several hipsters in the back of the bus staring at me in horror.

"Catch!!!" I say to them and, in one graceful, economical move, toss the offending lady to them in the air.

A perfect throw, she lands with a thud in the their laps, unharmed.

"Anybody else want to fucking offer me THEIR SEAT???" I say, my eyes bulging as I look all around the bus.  "Anybody want to go for a RIDE like the little lady just did?  Anybody think I'm OLD and NEED to sit down, speak up or forever hold your peace!"

Heads bowed everywhere.  Not a word spoken.

"Good," I say.  "Very good."

I walk back to the woman's seat, which, of course, is empty.  I sit down.  I'm feeling my age, I have to admit.  

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Laughing

I love to hear a big, unrestricted, peeling laugh.  A laugh that gives fully to the moment.  Those laughs usually sound like rapid-fire jackhammer bursts.  There's nothing you can do to disguise your out-and-out happiness or you child-like appreciation of that moment that made you laugh.  These can be accompanied by various bent over movements, head thrown back, eyes widened.

When was the last time you had a belly laugh?  Have you ever laughed so hard you had to hit someone? Have you ever laughed so hard you actually fell down on the floor?  I did, once, in a movie theater, when I saw Putney Swope, years ago, laughing so unrestrainedly I tumbled onto the theater aisle.  God, what a wonderful moment.

Robin Williams had a laugh like that.  You didn't hear it that often, because he was so busy making other people laugh, but if you go on YouTube and find places where he was with Jonathan Winters, you can hear it.  It'll make you laugh, or at least smile. Jennifer Lawrence has a great laugh.


We learn a lot from the way a person laughs.  In fact, of all the signals we get from people we don't know that well, their laugh may be the most telling. It's amazing to me how many laughs are mirthless.  Those people who can't give themselves away, who laugh moderately, with restraint, without any theater, without any passion and release, are to be wary of, I think.

To let go with a big, uninhibited, raucous belly laugh takes not caring.  You are so obviously a delighted mess.  So obviously you.  Nothing you wear, nothing you've done, nobody you know--nothing can protect you from the Woody Woodpecker, crazy happy noise that comes out of your mouth.  I am a passenger on that ship of restraint from time to time, and I so regret it.  Because laughing feels so damn great.

Of course, if you want to tap the source of genuine soul-satisfying laughter, if you want to learn how to really laugh again, listen to children. Especially to babies.  Yes, babies.  Because when you make a baby laugh, the sound is 100% pure undiluted joy. It's better than vitamins.


Saturday, February 8, 2020

Terrible Ted

I went to Cranbrook School, a private boys school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, starting in 1958.

Cranbrook had an ice hockey team, but since I couldn't skate well, I never considered trying out for the team.  I didn't know much about the sport.

I had a good friend at the school who was on the team, though, and I used to go to the school's rink, which was outside, to watch him practice.  I would stand at one end and watch him sail around the rink on skates. He looked so graceful.  One time, I noticed a grown man skating with the players.  He wasn't the coach.  I asked my friend who he was.

"Ted Lindsay," he said.  "He helps out coaching from time to time."

Who was Ted Lindsay?

"He used to play for the Red Wings.  Want to meet him?"

He meant the Detroit Red Wings.  One of the sixat the timeNational Hockey League teams.  A little later my friend skated over with the man.  He introduced me to Ted Lindsay.  The man did not smile.  He didn't exactly have a scowl, but he looked deadly serious.  I learned later he had recently retired.

Then I noticed his face.  It was unlike any face I'd ever seen.  It was marked with countless jagged scars.  They covered the landscape of his face.  It was if his face were an abstract painting.  There didn't seem to be one portion of it that wasn't marked by scars moving in all directions.  I probably gasped.  He was fearsome-looking.  The fact that he didn't smile added to his fearsomeness. Later, I read that Lindsay had over 700 stitches on that face. 

Ted Lindsay had played left wing on a storied line that included the legendary Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretsky's idol.  He was called "Terrible Ted" by the press for his ferocity as a player.  "I had no friends on the ice," he once said.  He will be unknown to most Americans who do not know or love ice hockey.  But I'm sure most every Canadian knows who Ted Lindsay, a native son, was.

Ted Lindsay

I still remember that face.  The over-abundant scars, the result of run-ins with fists and hockey sticks and perhaps skate blades as well.  I'm sure Ted Lindsay had seen the astonished look I had on my face hundreds, maybe thousands of times. He probably counted on it as a player.

This was a face that a child might imagine the bogeyman having, who might spirit the child away from his home in the middle of the night.  Suddenly, "There's no such thing as the bogeyman" lost all its meaning.  There he was.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Final cut

One of the profound changes wrought by aging is how much sustenance I take from memories.  At 74, I live off them like oxygen.  I breathe them in and out.

Memory evokes joy and melancholy now, of a life more lived than will be lived.  The difference becomes more striking every day.  Those long-gone times are set.  I look at them as old home movies, wishing I could change the action or the script, the ending, but time, the Director, won't have it.

In New York, where I lived for so many years, every block, every street even, elicits ghosts and echoes, a catalyst for some reverie in my mind of things done and, worse, things not done.  

I am attending in my mind a retrospective of my life’s work.  It's sobering.

A walk down Greene Street in New York’s Soho is a walk down two streets.  The first is the Greene Street of today.  Underneath, covered over by time, revealed like the paleontologist’s brush, is the Greene Street of 1979, of forty years ago, that I knew so well.  In those days, as a young man, I would walk from my apartment in Greenwich Village to a loft at 55 Greene Street for my weekly writers group meeting.  The film shows a single evening, in summer.  I’m standing outside the door at 55 Greene.  There is no bell to the illegal loft my friend is living in.  I shout up to the window.  It opens, a hand extends with a key, lets it fall.  I pick it up, use it to open the large steel door and then walk up a flight of very wide stairs to the loft.  Inside, eager young writers await.

I see that young man going to meet with his fellow aspiring writers, to put his writing into their hands and have them put their writing into his.  Back then, all of us were subsisting on a strict regimen of dreams, fueled by the most open and hopeful part of us.  If only I'd written more.

Today, these people are all scattered to the four winds.  One is dead.

When I walk down East Tenth Street, I walk into joy and failure.  At 110, between Second and Third, where I lived for four years, I watch that young man, and I tell him: be more trusting of that woman you’re living with.  She loves you and believes in you.  Don’t discard her love.  Be braver.  Give your heart to her. 

The young man I was doesn’t listen. 

I replay the cinema of the past.  There is hardly a place or situation where I wouldn’t want a second take.  Or a third.  But all the films of my life were shot in one take.  There were no second takes.  There never are.  “Good enough!” says the Director.  “Print it.”


“But…” I protest.

“Next shot,” the Director says.

Then he turns to me.  “One take,” he says calmly.  “Read the contract.”