Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tom Petty and a life

I finished watching Runnin' Down a Dream, the panoramic 4 hour 19 minute documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, last night.

Not all in one sitting.

The 2007 film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich.  You know, The Last Picture Show guy.  

I knew virtually nothing about Petty and his Heartbreakers before this.  His music was not a part of my life.

The film is thorough, if anything.  It mainly consists if concert footage and interviews with Petty, his band members, and various well-known musical figures.  It's not a great film, in my view.  And fours hours is a long time if you're not a rabid Petty fan.

But the film is curiously addicting.  Because of its length, you are able to really get to know Tom Petty.  And his career, which began in the mid-1970s, and continued until his death at 66 in 2017.

What I gathered after imbibing this much celluloid is that Tom Petty was one interesting, admirable guy.  Brave and a man of great integrity,

Thinking about it this morning.  Two things.  First, the influence of seeing the full sweep of a life.  Or a musical life, because there is almost nothing of Petty's private life in the film. One can assume this was deliberate on Petty's part.  The most affecting glimpse is the material about his mother and his cruel father.

You see a life unfold, decision by decision, resolution by resolution.  Petty twice fought the music industry in David vs. Goliath encounters, and twice he prevailed.  These were nasty and prolonged fights, not mere skirmishes.

This nearly day-by-day accounting is sobering.  A life is an accumulation, and today is part of that accounting.  A life is all those todays.

What does my accumulation look like?

I don't like a lot of what I see.

Second thing.  Suddenly, Tom Petty is dead at 66.  Did he have regrets?  I have no idea.  But if the film is any indication, I would say: not many.

I'm 75.  

How much accumulating do I have left? Will it make a difference?

Friday, August 28, 2020

A walk in Charleston

I arrived in Charleston, SCor nearbyMonday.  On my way back to New Orleans.

Went into the city proper yesterday.  I'd been on previous trips but wanted to see how it looked with this shitstorm we're facing. 

Pretty place, early-19th-century century houses.  Enjoyable to walk, normally.  Scene of a monstrous church slaying in 2015.  Civil War started in the harbor.  I'm sure you know this.

The place was practically deserted.  Masks required, but half the few people I saw, wearing none.  Zero police presence, either on foot or in auto, to enforce.

The last time I walked here I had a companion, a woman I'd been with for three years.  My leaving her ached within me.  No place is the same if it can't be shared.  She liked Charleston.  

She walked with me in my mind.  I pointed out things to her.  "Remember this house?"  Or, "I bought you a hat here.  You liked it so much."  We went to the harbor, in my mind, watched the birds.

As Dylan says: I threw it all away.  

Even without her, it was sad walking the streets.  The life is squeezed out of the town.  Even towns can lose weight, become thinner, look wan.

I wanted to see one building, though, before I turned around.  

The Old Slave Mart.  I'd been before, taken a tour, but wanted to see it again.  

I stood before it.  It's odd, in a way, with a plate glass facade.  But the lettering above is not odd.  Reading the words "MART" on the building made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  As well it should. 

It's impossible to process, the fact of slavery.  As soon as I thought of what went on inside that building 165 years ago, my mind collapsed.

I walked away, interior fingers pointing at me.

Hardly any walk is simple, is it?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Notes on a courageous writer

Lacy Crawford. 

She published a remarkable memoir in July, Notes on a Silencing.  The book takes place, mostly, at St. Paul's School, a storied, elite prep school for boys and girls in New Hampshire.  It's a dark story of violation, cruelty and betrayal that is as well written and stirring as any memoir I've read in years.  

Crawford was 15 when she got a phone call one night from a boy at school she hardly knew.  He was distraught.  He said something had happened with his mother.  Would she please come to help.  She did.  That boy and another boy brutally raped her orally. She didn't know it then, but one result of this crime was she contracted herpes.

The book is the story of what happened before and after that night. 

Lacy Crawford is able to describe the machinations, pettiness and outright cruelty that flows through prep school dorms better than anyone I've ever read.  Having attended one of these so-called elite prep schools for five years myself as a boarding student, I can tell you that she has perfect pitch when it comes to describing the particular form of cruelty that arises from youth who come from money and privilege.

There is not a single drop of self-pity in this book.  You, the reader, will supply the pity, the outrage, the anger and the sorrow as you read this story.  There is much cowardice here, not from the author, but from St. Paul's and its administration and teachers.  Not to mention lying and, as the title suggests, attempts by the school to silence Crawford.  If you're like me, you will bristle, react viscerally, to the wrongs done to her.  They start with the assault, but they by no means end there.

Despite the dark story, Crawford's writing can be funny at times, dry and sardonic.  She also quotes poets, a writer after my own heart.  Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" gets her through some difficult times.  She quotes one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets at one point.  Anyone who believes in the guiding power of poetry will find evidence of that in Crawford's book.  If you find yourself stymied at times defending the arts, point the skeptics to Notes on a Silencing.

Crawford is wondrously adept with language.  She knows when the strong Anglo-Saxon word is required when writing about sex and when it just wouldn't be right.  She never spares herself in this tale and, to draw on an other poet, Theodore Roethke, she understands, as he writes, that nakedness is her shield.  Here I am, she says.  I'm revealing everything, my messy mistakes included.

Most everyone in the book is not kind to Crawford. "Kind" is a word she uses often, and kindness ranks high, if not the highest, on her list of admirable qualities in a person.  The few exceptions, the few people who are kind to hera female chaplain, a boyfriend of a few monthsbring much-appreciated light into this dark story.  Even a girl's brief arm around her shoulder is something Crawford never forgets.  

The courage?  After having told her story many times to people who doubt her and evenof course!accuse her of being at fault, Crawford decides, nearly thirty years after the events, to write about them unstintingly in a book.  She doesn't hold back onanything. She's married now, happily, and has two small sons.  On day, they will read her book.  She know this, of course. Yet, she proceeds. It's a beautifully written book and a humbling experience to read it.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Anting

I am staying in a small garage apartment in Camden, Maine.  There are windows in the main room that look out onto a congregation of lovely trees, including a spectacular Eastern white pine, perhaps 80' tall.  A tree I'd be willing to fall on my knees before.

Looking out a window yesterday, I saw a fluttering of black near a rock nearby. The black was twisting and writhing.  Birds?  

Trusty binoculars at hand, I picked them up and focused.  Two crows.  They were moving about in the dirt on their bellies.  They were flashing their wings, often changing places, one moving over and around the other.  Constantly shifting.  Like a modern dance but an amateur one.

It seemed more intense than a normal dirt bath.  It went on and on.  Then one bird suddenly hopped onto a plank nearby.  Began preening.  Extensive beak work on the wings and feathers.

Then it was all over.  They flew away.

I went down to have a look.  I saw near the rock: hundreds of ants racing about, at double-speed, like a miniature Grand Central Station at 5:35pm on a Friday.  Heavy traffic!  Well, they'd just been stirred up by two black tornadoes.

What was...the deal?

I went upstairs and Googled, well, "Crows and ants."  And lo and behold, "Anting" came up.

"Anting is a maintenance behavior during which birds rub insects, usually ants, on their feathers and skin," Wiki says. 

A word and an activity in 75 years of living I'd never encountered.  Here's what Stanford University has to say about it:

"The purpose of anting is not well understood, but the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring the defensive secretions of ants primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and, perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird's own preen oil." 

Come to think of it, how did the crows know that there were ants there?  A rush hour of ants?  I'd walked by the rock many times and not noticed ants.

Let there be mysteries.  

Friday, July 17, 2020

Fog

Driving from Belfast, Maine back to Camden, I run into a sweep of fog.  I’d been driving through full sunshine up until then. My car climbed and descended a small hill, and there it was: a white presence drifting over the hills and the road before me.  The road is not a half-mile from the sea, so it makes sense.  Still, a surprise.

Fog like this—not obscuring the road completely for the foreseeable future and so not striking fear in a driver—is a delight.  Just enough white to be called fog and yet not enough to be perilous.   Fog can be treacherous, but not today.

The fog is delicate, snowy, insubstantial; yet it’s there.  I know it’s entirely water, yet, unlike water, how graceful and airy and white it is.

When fog moves, it often drifts, taking its good time, like a jellyfish being eased on by the current.

Sometimes, of course it stubbornly sits there, unmovable, the last person at the party. 

The poet Marianne Moore writes about an ocean storm: “It is a privilege to see so / much confusion.”  I think it’s a privilege to see this little world of fog. I bask in it.

After five minutes of driving, I’m through its presence and back in sunlight. Regrettably.

Was I seeing things? 

Who knows why there was fog in just one short stretch of land and road and nowhere else?  There’s a reason, of course.  But I think if I knew that reason, the science that is, I’d be the less for it.

Leave me with my child-like wonder.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Living in a new place for a short time and trying to understand how everything works

I've rented a small apartment in Maine for a brief stay.  It's the first time I've stayed in this place.  Everything is new.  The shower, kitchen, windows, front door, closets, bathroom.  

Every time I stay in a new place, it's the same situation.  I have to fiddle with shower handles to discern the right balance between hot and cold, something I've long established in my own place.  Several screams later, I begin to make the proper adjustments.  Finally, after perhaps a week, sometimes even longer, I determine precisely how to reach that correct balance of hot and cold water to produce the ideal shower.


The process is the same with everything.  My stove, for example, has new mysteries of oven temperature to deal with.  Is its 350 degrees the same as my stove's at home? What about the burners?  They're electric, not gas, like mine.   The cultures are entirely different between gas and electric.  This adjusting takes up almost two weeks.  In the process, I burn several dishes, and myself.

Lamps, windows, cabinets, even chairs--they all require learning curves.  Where's that switch to turn this &^%$# lamp off?

Finally, after four weeks, I think I've learned how to make everything work according to my own particular routines and predilections.

The time to leave is just around the corner.

I can't take these highly honed skills and newfound knowledge anywhere else.  They only fit here, in this apartment.  

Maybe I could loan myself out as a kind of apartment docent to anyone else who rents this place.

"Now,  you'll notice this window shade is rather temperamental.  I would  suggest an angled pull on the cord, with the slightest tug at the end...."

Like everyone else, I just want to be useful.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Telling a lie

From time to time, I meet someone who says, "I never lie." 

I don't believe them.

It's almost impossible for me to go through the day without telling a lie.  I lie in order not to hurt someone, for example.  Of course, the truth isn't necessarily called for when not asked for.  But sometimes you're asked for it, and sometimes it's better not to provide it.  If they ask you, are you going to tell your child she or he wasn't less than wonderful in the school recital?  And if you do tell them they just weren't that goodwhich is the truth, mind you!well, go live with the look on their face.  

But, hey, you can say you never lie.  Good for you. 

Someone asked playwright Tracy Letts what he says when he sees a play written by a friend that he thinks is awful and the friend asks him his opinion.

"I lie!" Letts said.  "I lie magnificently!"

I agree with what one of Graham Greene's characters has to say about this:  "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit is a symbol for mathematicians to pursue.  In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

Of course, sometimes lying is despicable.  If the intent is to deceive, to cause harm, simply to gain an advantage, well, it's ugly.  Sometimes you have to tell the truth.  You're a coward if you don't.  I often fail here.  I lie when I shouldn't.  Not proud of that. 

I side with Tennessee Williams.  I trust his sense of morality.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche with some unsavory details about her past:

Mitch:  You lied to me, Blanche.
Blanche:  Don't say I lied to you.
Mitch:  Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.
Blanche:  Never inside, I didn't lie in my heart...


TW was the same guy who said the worst sin is deliberate cruelty.  And a lot of times a well-fabricated lie prevents me from being deliberately cruel.  In those moments, I'm content to be a liar.

A great friend of mine, who tells the truth faithfully more than anyone I've ever known, said to me recently, "I've made a vow not to lie to myself anymore."

Now that is a different story.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Farewell, Cake Cafe



It's hard to calculate a loss like this.  How do you measure warmth, conviviality, a sense of welcome, an always interesting mix of people, eclectic servers, and wonderful, heartwarming food?  How do you calibrate a sense of home?  Of a place that satisfied your belly and your soul?  That was relaxed, fun, colorful and faithfully reflected the Marigny, the New Orleans neighborhood it served so openheartedly.

Steve Himelfarb and Becky Retz, owners and partners. They earned every bit of the popularity bestowed upon the Cake Cafe.  The place was packed on the weekends, lines outside, people coming for a substantial breakfastmy favorite: the poetic homemade corned beef hash.  There was always robust coffee and a sense that they were glad you were there.


Some things need to be mentioned.  Steve's king cake, ranked high in the city. (Those reading this not from New Orleans who want to know what a king cake is, read this.)   I ordered one every year.  I ate a lot of their celebrated cupcakes, too.  But in the interest of not having to buy new pants every six months, I stopped.  Nearly.

On the weekends, Steve in back in the kitchen, you were greeted by Becky.  She had a small pad, took your name, asking if you wanted a table inside or out.  And however crowded it was, you got that table much sooner than later.  It was always so heartening to be greeted by her sunny disposition.


I don't like writing this.  I don't like the idea of not being able to go to the Cake Cafe any more.  Change your minds, Steve and Becky!  Don't leave me out in the cold, away from your embrace. Like so many places we come to love and to depend on to give us a big dose of the better things in life, the loss will hit us hard.  Has, already.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Cry

I woke up today with a hangover.  Not a booze-inflicted hangover.  A crying hangover.  Yesterday afternoon, I wept uncontrollably for an hour at least. I don't remember how long it actually was.  It all gushed out, the despair I'd been closeting in my heart.  I couldn't contain it any more.  My hands to my face, I let the dam burst, and I couldn't stop it. I wept and wailed, and, like a cut vein, the pain gushed and gushed.  Like a rain-soaked cloud, it poured and poured and poured, a hurricane of pain, a typhoon of pain and distress and hopelessness.  It had been brewing for months, but I'd contained it, until something set it off, I don't know what.  Somehow, my heart had become saturated.  I was on the phone with my brother, and I had to hang up.  I could feel it coming, and I couldn't stop it, didn't want to stop it.  

And I not only wept, I wailed, throwing out desperate question after desperate question. I don't know the answers.  Why?  Why did it end up like this?

The complete vulnerability, nakedness, all of it poured out of my eyes and throat.

And afterwardyou all know thisstunned and exhausted, wrung out, nothing left, nothing.  

No answers.  But surrender.  Blessed surrender.

The release of those pent-up feelings, overcoming the instinct to keep in control, for God's sake, not to mention the sense, in my case at least, that it's unmanly to cryto break past that and let it happen. Finally. 

Masked

I've been wearing masks for years.  I have an entire metaphorical closet full of them.  For all occasions and all times.  I made them all myself, actually.

I wear them to protect myself.  Not from any virus.  But from people knowing who I really am.

These masks are so cleverly constructed it's hard to tell I'm wearing one.  At least, that's the goal.

So now when I go to the grocery store or to the pharmacy with a literal mask, surgeon-ready, I'm relieved.  I don't have to go to the elaborate stages of putting on one of my many false faces to hide behind.  This real mask does all the work for me.

The relief of not being seen.

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.

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.