The Ties That Bind

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Inseparable.  Acrylic on canvas and board.  2018

Some couples stay together out of true love, love that deepens and grows richer with each passing year.  Even if passion fades, the bonds of friendship and shared history strengthen.

Some couples remain conjoined when inertia prevents both from making a break for freedom.  The ennui becomes familiar, and the slow deadening of hope becomes the normal and comfortable state of being.

Some cling to each other in a symbiosis based on mutual contempt.  The hatred shared becomes the tie that binds.  Anger drives their anti-relationship forward, and resentment transforms itself into a negative romantic fervor.  If faced with the possibility of starting a new life based on affection and attraction, they wouldn’t know what to do.

Some relationships cycle through phases of love, inertia, and contempt., and still manage to go on.  They are like trees that weather storm after storm while others around them fall.  Perhaps endurance is a matter of dumb luck, blind willfulness, and grace.

My wife and I have been fortunate enough to have strengthened our bonds over 33 years of marriage.  When I wonder how we managed all these years, and I ask myself this question:  “Could you go through a day without hearing her voice and seeing her smile.”  The answer has always been, “Hell no.”

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What Kind of Drugs

I wrote an existential, absurdist dramatization of how burned out I felt as I approached spring finals at the end of my freshmen year in college. I performed it in speech class and used my natural jitters to enhance the edginess of the delivery. It went over well, but one guy came up to me as we walked out and said, “What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote that?” I said, “I just used my imagination.” He shrugged as if to say, “Well, if you’re not going to tell me…”

Years later I gave an art lesson to an eight-year-old boy, who astounded me with his ability to draw foreshortened animals from his imagination. The kid had a camera in his head and the ability to accurately capture what he saw in his mind’s eye. I told his father, a professor at Penn State, that his son had tremendous talent. The man looked at me in disbelief and mild horror. He appeared to be afraid that his child had come down with a fatal dose of creativity.

About ten years ago I sat down at a party beside an educated woman who counseled children. She stated, for no apparent reason, that artists while making art are in a state of insanity. I turned to her and said, “So, if I’m sitting here reading a book or watching the news I’m sane. But when I pick up a pencil and draw, say, a geranium, I go temporarily insane.” I spoke sarcastically, but she just nodded in agreement. I explained to her that drawing realistically was an analytical, problem solving process, and that it could be taught in a completely rational, step-by-step approach. Surely that was the hallmark of sanity. She answered, “No. When you’re making art, you’re insane. When you teach other people to draw, you’re introducing them to madness.”

I looked at her carefully to see if she was pulling my leg, but she appeared serious. I tried again: “Making art does put you into a nonverbal mode of thinking, but there is a sense of inevitable order as you come to an end of a piece.” “That’s a delusion,” she countered. Last ditch argument: “Van Gogh was completely lucid when he painted. When he was institutionalized during a spell of madness, his painting skills eroded. He was sane when he painted well.” She smiled sadly, cruelly as if she pitied me.

I’m not sure where the tagging of creativity as an abnormality comes from, but I suspect the source is fear. I believe that some folks are threatened by anything that makes them think in unaccustomed patterns or feel unfamiliar emotions.

A woman came up to me at an open house at my studio after she had looked at some of my paintings. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but the underlying question was, “What’s wrong with you?” I told her that I just paint the things that most people don’t want to acknowledge, the ghosts and bogeys hiding in the backs of their heads. She pointed to a painting and huffed, “That’s not in the back of my head,” and marched away. I thought “Oh yes, it really is.”

Foggy Mess of Happiness: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s morning dawned foggy, and the day stayed gray at midmorning when I went on a mission to get a haircut and buy some plants for my wife.  I drove to Oviedo, but a barbershop near Home Depot had been replaced by a fitness center.  I headed back toward Winter Park, but stopped at Lukas Nursery on the way.  I found an odd looking plant with purple flowers in the shape of ragged trumpets.  The tag said they’d lure butterflies and hummingbirds.  Judy would love the color and the visitors they attracted.  As I walked off in search of an African violet, an older woman approached and said she had to take all the purple flowers, but added that I could keep the one in my hand.  Didn’t know what to say, so I went with a simple response:  “Thank you.”

After I purchased the plants, I took Red Bug Road home so that I could search for a new barbershop.  Ended up in Casselberry at a place that I’ve gone to off and on for a year.  A well dressed woman wearing make-up and carrying a shopping bag stopped me as I approached the door.  She said, “Mister, can you give me two dollars?”  I pulled out my wallet and she added, “I need to buy a bus pass.  That’s five dollars.”  I took two bills out, and she said, “Three dollars?”  I said, “Two,” handed her the cash and fled inside.  I’d never encountered a dickering beggar before.

I sat down to wait.  When I looked up, I was surprised to find an old acquaintance sitting in the barber chair in front of me.  I hadn’t seen him in six months.  Charlie said, “Dennis!”  We chatted for a few minutes and caught up on a bit of gossip.  “Strange coincidence,” I thought as he walked out the door.

Judy and I had a pleasant lunch, and the flowers and my haircut pleased her.  She teased and called me her silver fox. I didn’t mind.  We meditated, and I baked a peach upside down cake for a snack.  We watched a “Doc Martin” episode before I cooked supper and went to work.

Class went well for the most part, but I stepped in several times to correct some drawings.  Some of my students haven’t yet mastered (or committed to memory) some basic techniques in perspective and measuring proportions, and I grew impatient with the amateurish look of some of the work.  “We’re nearly at midterm!” I muttered under my breath.  I drilled a Drawing II student about some basic rules of line work, and as I walked away I realized I’d been too harsh.  I came back, apologized, and told her that we all have mental habits that need a bit of work.  I told Erin that I had to train myself as a boy to look back at my classroom desk each time I left to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything.  She relaxed, and I decided to ease up on the class and let them work in peace.

I cleaned up the room after the students left and found a smart phone on the tray of Erin’s easel.  “How odd,” I thought.  “Forgetfulness must be communicable.”  I decided to take it with me.  Leaving it there would ensure its theft, and the lost and found at the security office was closed.  I walked toward my car hoping to see Erin coming back from the parking lot, but instead ran into a slender young man sitting on a concrete ball.  He looked up from his phone and asked whether the Lynx bus would come near where he waited.  He added that he had to return to Disney World.  I said, “I haven’t seen buses pull in here for a couple years, but there’s a bus shelter two hundred feet south of the main entrance on Econlockhatchee.  He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Thank you.  I am from Pakistan.”

As I drove out of the lot I saw him trudging south.  A Lynx bus appeared and turned onto campus.  “What the hell?” I said.  It didn’t seem to be heading to the shelter.  I took a right and drove north, but as I went on I felt a growing sense of dismay that I might have given the young man the wrong advice.  Would he be stranded there all night?  I also reasoned that I was dead tired, needed to go home and see my wife, and that my mission in life wasn’t to save the world.  Fog rolled in, and driving conditions got worse and worse.  Rationalizations failed me two or three miles up the road, and I turned around.

I had no idea what I would do if I found him sitting at the bus shelter.  I didn’t really want to drive for an hour down to Disney, and my gas gauge hovered below the half full mark.  Judy would worry…

I cruised around campus, pulled up to the shelter, but didn’t see the young man.  I assumed that the bus had swung around to where I had directed him to go, and that he was safely on his way.  A large man in a bulky coat did slump on one of the shelter seats, and I felt an odd obligation to give him a lift.  I resisted and drove home.

Judy waited up for me in her bedroom, and I explained why I’d been delayed.  She gave me a warm smile and told me that she loved me. I felt most of my tension and fatigue drain away.

Valentine’s Day had twisted and turned in unexpected ways, but none of that mattered.

Perspective: Blame that Dead Italian

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I’ve covered perspective in drawing classes several times these past weeks. I say that an architect named Brunelleschi wanted to accurately copy Roman and Greek ruins.  He invented perspective in the late 1300 to early 1400s so that he could rip off the designs with precision.  I tell students that they can blame that dead Italian if they find drawing boxes and hallways frustrating.

I repeat, “Parallel lines appear to converge as they move away from your position,” until I’m nearly dead from boredom. But some students still insist on making objects get larger as they recede, smaller as they approach.  Even when I make corrections on their drawings, they’ll drift back to the original mistake in a series of tentative erasures and line markings.  They can’t quite believe that I’m telling them the truth and revert to notions that are wrong but comfortable.  Our perspectives on perspective stubbornly clash.

I also tell them that other cultures have different systems for depicting space on two dimensional surfaces.  The Chinese and Japanese scroll painters used isometric perspective (parallel lines on an object are drawn parallel on the paper), and Egyptian wall paintings used mixed viewpoints when depicting human beings.  A pharaoh would be drawn with a profile head and hips, a frontal eye and shoulders.  I tell them that all systems for showing space on a flat surface are lies, but that Renaissance lies allow an artist to create a convincing illusion of depth.

I go on to explain that early Renaissance artists used perspective fanatically and cite Perugino, Raphael’s instructor, as an example.  I say, “Perugino once did a painting called, ‘The Marriage of Joseph and Mary’.  The painting showed a black and white checked plain the size of Kansas.  In the middle of the plain was a tiny church.  In front of the church were two tiny figures, Mary and Joseph.”

I tell them that Western artists faithfully used perspective until Cezanne decided to shift around a bit as he painted still lives and people in interiors.  He went slightly Egyptian.  Braque and Picasso saw his paintings, looked at African masks, and decided to push the idea of a moving viewpoint further.  Forms fractured into geometric bits, and figures and still lives seemed to be part of a spatial continuum.  A splintered pear encountered a fragment of a table disrupted by a curtain and a hand.

I sometimes go on to explain that modern artists continued to throw out key elements of traditional art until they reached a dead end in the 1960s and 70s.  At that point artists were using paint rollers to paint monochrome canvases and doing conceptual pieces that offered little tangible evidence of production.  One man wrote to Art Forum magazine and reported that he planned to think the word “blue” for an hour or two on a Tuesday in July (I don’t recall the actual date, and apologize if his color-thought piece had an important connection to a precise day and time.).

I conclude by telling them that artists have continued to paint realistically using Renaissance conventions and perspective.  Avant-garde artists in the 1980s began to dump elements from multiple art history periods (traditional and modern) and cultures (Western and Eastern) back into their work, and now there are no true artistic movements any more.  A mishmash of styles and influences roll in and out of favor like oil slicks on sluggish tides.

While they stand there mulling over the information overload I just delivered, I offer them an out.  I say, “But we’re not going to worry about any of that.  Today we’re just going to draw boxes and halls.  And remember, none of this is my fault.  Blame that dead Italian.  He started this.”

 

Mortality

This winter shapes up to be a season of mortality. This year’s flu is particularly virulent, and other causes have separated several friends, relatives, and acquaintances from their dear ones.

A colleague died of brain cancer two weeks ago, and a mutual friend reported that Jackie remained calm as she faced the end. Although she was an atheist who believed that the lights went out permanently after she drew her last breath, she declared that she was unafraid of death.

My viewpoint shifts on the issue of mortality, but, for the most part, I’ve concluded that dying is a bad idea. I usually reach certainty on that point when thinking about my own demise. Wouldn’t the world be a sadder place without me? And wouldn’t my erasure from existence leave an unfillable void? And am I not a unique specimen and thus somewhat precious?

Those other folks who slipped on the Cosmic Banana Peel and slid over the edge into The Great Whatever must not have been as special. And while I regret their misfortune, I can’t help feeling that my continued efforts to remain breathing must have some blessing from the fates. I’m still here for a reason. I hope, for the time being, that my mission requires a lengthy amount of time to work itself to a conclusion.

I adopt other mental stances to push back the creeping dread. I cling to the guarantees of my faith. I recall the assurances I received from my grandfather and sister shortly after their funerals: they visited me in dreams to let me know that they were all right. My wife felt the presence of her father for a year after his death. These communications from the other side comfort me, but fear remains a stubborn companion. I am a coward, unlike Jackie, when I stare into the abyss.

I feel just like I did as a boy when I sat on top of a tall slide at the NCR swimming pool. My fingers and toes tingled in anticipation, but the height made me dizzy. The water looked way too far away, and I doubted it would cushion the end of my descent. And, as someone behind pushed my shoulders to encourage me to go, I recalled two things: I’d reached a point of no return (no way to climb through ten kids down the ladder); and I couldn’t swim two yards.

I pinched my nose and took the next inevitable step, and as I rushed downward I told myself that the water was only three feet deep. The bottom of the pool was slippery, but I hadn’t managed to drown just yet. I might make it after all.

Splooosh.

 

 

 

 

Courtroom Artist

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I stood outside a federal courtroom in downtown Orlando holding a sketchbook.  Two groups huddled a few feet apart near the closed double doors.  I took out a pencil and began to make quick sketches of a older woman talking to a man, a man staring off into space, a young woman slumping against a wall.

The older woman saw me drawing and marched over with a stern look on her face.  “Are you recording our conversations?” she demanded.  I held up my drawings and said, “I’m practicing.  I’m the courtroom artist for Channel 6.”  The woman turned away.

The doors opened a half hour before the hearing began.  The reporter, who had called out of the blue to offer me this job, bustled in on an adrenaline high and told me to sit in the jury box.  A seat in the box gave me the best view of the two convicts as their lawyers entered pleas and the judge delivered sentences.

I sketched as I waited.  The courtroom filled gradually, and I noticed a number of police officers sitting on the left side near the back.  Their expressions looked grim and determined.  The bailiff entered, saw me, and demanded to know what I was doing in the jury box.  I held up the sketchbook again, stated my purpose, and was granted permission to remain.

A woman wearing an orange jump suit trudged slowly with her uniformed escort into the chamber, and she took a seat at a table with her attorney.  The judge entered, and the court came to order.  The judge read the charges and the verdicts, and asked for statements.  The lawyer stood at a podium beside the woman and pleaded for leniency for his client.  He stated that she was a mother of two young children who needed her presence in their life.  The woman’s mother, the lady who had accused me of spying earlier, came up and made a statement in support of her daughter.  Daughter regretted her mistakes and had become a different person, and her kids really, really loved their mother.

The judge listened patiently but with an impassive expression, and he sentenced her to one year.  The woman’s face fell, but she accepted her fate.  A corrections officer led her away.

A few minutes later a tall man shambled in, and the ritual began anew.  He was muscular in a raw-boned way, his hair cropped into short tufts, eyes hollow and dark ringed.  He looked dangerous, but as he stood before the judge at the podium, lawyer at his side, he repeatedly took out a tissue and dabbed his eyes.

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The judge reviewed the man’s offenses, and I found out that he had been a police officer who had worked with drug enforcement agents.  Hollow Eyes decided, along with his wife (the woman just sentenced), to start a marijuana grow operation.  He hired an ex-con as his assistant.  The ex-con had turned him in, and had told police that Hollow Eyes had given him police radio codes so that he could be warned of imminent raids.  The crooked cop had also bragged to the ex-con that he would kill anyone, cop or otherwise, if they messed with his drug business.

The uniforms seated on the left crossed arms over their chests and glared at the back of Hollow Eyes’ head.  The judge’s face looked like a hatchet.

The lawyer began to make a plea for mercy.  Hollow Eyes’ wife had been a druggy when they met, and she had dragged him under.  She had received an easy sentence, and had been the cofounder of the grow operation.  His client deserved equal leniency.  His client had suffered through a crisis, had grown to find police work unfulfilling, and had started an illegal business in misguided hopes of finding new purpose in his life.  The judge took a few notes.  I scribbled away, but was distracted by this thought:  “God, that was pathetic.”

The judge thought so too, but before he responded to the lawyer’s arguments, he addressed an old man seated at the back of the court.  The judge said, “I want to acknowledge the defendant’s father, Judge B–.  Your years of service brought honor to your name and great benefit to our community.  I regret that we are met today under these circumstances.”  The old man nodded to the judge.

The judge shuffled a few pages and began his statement.  It went something like this:  “Federal guidelines give me little leeway in sentencing cases like this.  But since arguments for leniency have been made, I will discuss their merits one by one.  While your wife was a full partner in your grow operation and had a history of drug abuse, she was not a police officer who put his fellow officers in jeopardy by sharing codes with an ex-convict.  She did not declare her intention to kill police officers.  Your level of misconduct is much higher than hers.  As to your ‘crisis’…Most of the men and women who come through this court facing similar charges have not had the benefits that you received.  They did not grow up in stable homes, did not go to college, could not find work in an honorable profession.  You decided, for reasons I don’t understand, to betray your fellow officers in an attempt to “find yourself”.  Shouldn’t police work have been fulfilling in and of itself?  Serving others, putting your life on the line for fellow citizens is as worthwhile a life as any I know.”

Hollow Eyes wiped away a tear, and his lawyer rested his hand on the man’s back. They braced for the inevitable.  The judge said, “I sentence you to ten years.”  Hollow Eyes released a muffled sob.

The courtroom cleared, but the police officers lingered.  They shook hands with each other, smiled grimly, muttered.  Justice had been served.  The traitor had been punished.

The reporter met me outside on the courthouse steps, and I showed him my sketches. He seemed pleased and excited.  I had just witnessed the final act of a tragedy and felt otherwise.  I said, “That was grim.  It was like watching a slow motion train wreck.”  He just smiled an all-in-a-day’s-work smile, marched over to his camera man and barked orders.

 

The Heat Pump Blues

So the heat pump died two weeks ago, and we called in folks from a reputable company in Orlando to replace it.  The crew, a heavy set man in his sixties, a skinny guy with a beard, and a short dude sporting a crew cut, showed up fifteen minutes early.  Heavyset wheezed as he worked on the air exchanger in a hall closet.  He explained that he had COPD.  Skinny leaped up a ladder into our attic and threaded new pipes from the east eaves over to the closet.  Crewcut dismantled the old condenser unit and began to install the new one.

My wife and I wore sweaters and jackets and huddled near the space heater I’d set up in the living room.  The crew worked efficiently from 7:45 to 4:30 with a nary a break, and Heavyset looked several times like he was ready to drop.  He told us, as he sat in a desk chair and wiped his forehead, that he’d had open heart surgery a year before and planned to retire as soon as he had trained his replacements.

Once everything got aligned, replaced, connected, charged, we flipped on the unit.  The fan blew in the exchanger, and tepid air flowed out of the vents.  The emergency heat light reddened on the new thermostat, and Heavyset explained that the unit was compensating for the cold air in the house and ducts.

After it ran for ten minutes, the temperature in the house rose from 66 to 67 degrees.  Heavyset decided that the unit was working well enough and called it a day.  I signed a check, and we bid them farewell.

The unit kept running nonstop for the next three hours, and the fan fairly roared in the heat exchanger.  The temperature refused to climb higher than 70, and we had kept the space heater running for part of that time.  Our new air conditioner wasn’t working properly.  And the whirr of the fan produced a high pitched whine that aggravated my wife’s vertigo.  Her ears have remained acutely sensitive to certain frequencies, and I could see her suffering.

I had a frustration melt down, barked some nonsense and slammed a few doors.  I eventually calmed down enough to channel my adrenaline toward fixing the problem.  I messed with the thermostat, but the air flowing out of the vents remained tepid.  I began to fiddle with the air filters in hopes of redirecting the air flow into the air exchanger.  Nothing I did short of removing the filter made the noise go away.  And the house grew colder as we headed into another night of below freezing weather.

We huddled on the sofa under the blanket and considered our options.  Judy said, “We could always move.”  We decided, for the time being, to leave the space heater on overnight, to turn the unit to emergency heat, pile blankets on our beds, and call the crew back in the morning.

Crewcut returned alone early the next day.  He listened carefully to me when I explained the problems, and his ears perked up when I said, “I listened to the condenser, and it would turn on for a few seconds, and then shut down.  It never really ran.”  He went outside and discovered that the outside unit had been overcharged.  He changed the pressure, came back inside and said, “It kept shutting down in self-defense.  It should work now.”

Crewcut used a laser temperature sensor to check the air flowing out of the living room vents, and he reported that all readings were in the low to upper nineties.  The house began to feel less frigid, and I turned off the space heater.  The whine persisted.

Crewcut tried many of the things that I had done the night before, and I said, “I think there must be a gap somewhere in the tray where the filter rests.  Air is getting pulled through the gap, and that’s causing the whistling sound.”

He considered the idea, and then began to peek in and around the platform holding up the air exchanger.  He brought out a roll of duct tape and taped a seam on the right side.  The whistling remained.  He crawled head first into an air intake vent leading up to the underside of the unit and eventually found a hair’s breadth gap between a rubber gasket and the base of the exchanger.  He duct taped the gap and the noise abruptly ceased.

I asked him if his duct tape had a warranty, and he said, “This is steel reinforced duct tape, and the adhesive is super strong.”

It took Crewcut two and a half hours to solve the problems, and I admired his patience and persistence.  He said that Heavyset had ended work too soon the day before, that the crew should have stayed longer to trouble shoot.

I didn’t care now that I knew that I hadn’t wasted fifty-six hundred on a unit that didn’t work.  I felt waves of relief now that the temperature of the house had risen to 73, that the air exchanger, while loud, didn’t whistle, and that my wife no longer suffered.

We wouldn’t have to move after all.