Halloween 1983

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Exit, moist lips and laced cups, the party undead but dying.
Your feet danced, I sang, but we left in a rush.
Antonio’s neon, steamed breath, and you screamed
At the mask. No danger. The soft touch whispered “yes”.

Loose trash scudded the dumpster, and the stair creaked;
Scraped the frost, the windows fogged.  We stopped, landing.
Second gear, clutch, pushed forward and against.
No one but shadows climbed the hill. Your cheek nestled mine.

Buckles, belt, stockings; bare wood floor; candlelit handfuls of just enough.
And the chianti bottle dripped wax; I haunted as
fingers tipped. A white calf, upended: you drew in, sighed.
Détente:  the shared heat of mammals.

Two ghosts floated, the sheets thrown over
Slick rain streets, dim mirrors.
Triangles grinned as clouds grazed the moon.
The candle fluttered.

 

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Doggone

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My wife and I came home at 10 last night, and while she arranged things in her lap and prepared to step out of the car, I stood by the front door and yipped and whined.  Judy said, “Stop that.”  Master commanded, and I obeyed.

We dog sat a miniature whippet and a terrier for the last couple weeks.  Sedgewick and Shakespeare erupted every time Judy and I  returned from a trip and stepped onto our front porch.  When we entered, they pawed our calves, wagged tails, and chased each other around the living room to welcome us home.

And today when daughter Annie and husband Bryant walked through the door, their dogs greeted them with even more enthusiasm.  Shakespeare, the retiring chap who spent most of his days staring at us with the sad resignation of a French Existentialist philosopher, practically did back flips when Bryant greeted him.  Sedgewick tried to climb up Annie’s legs and leap into her arms.  Their tails whipped back and forth in blurs.  Their true masters had returned!

Annie and Bryant packed up and left around 3:30 and headed back to Miami.  The dog dishes, leashes, and food bin are gone.  I picked up the blankets, sheets and pillows we put out for the dogs on the sofas and floor.  The red sofa has a smooth, hair-free texture once again. Fragments of pigskin chew toys no longer litter the carpet.  I’ve washed the sheets on my bed and can expect to sleep tonight in relative ease.  (I won’t have Sedgewick wedged mid back and Shakespeare lodged against my shins.)  And I feel a little sad.

The quiet in our house is a relief, and I’m looking forward to a few weeks of an easier schedule.  The peace will be relaxing, but perhaps dull.  I’ve grown accustomed to their yips.  I also got reacquainted with the enjoyment of meeting another creature’s basic needs.  It’s similar to the happiness of feeding a first dish of ice cream to a baby.  A tiny act of generosity makes eyes light up with joy.  The exchange is direct and uncomplicated, and no subtexts or unspoken demands ruin the innocence of the moment.

Perhaps that’s why we still keep dogs around.  They serve no useful purpose, but remind us to be more open handed and simple.

 

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Dress the Part

I stood before the desk of an elegantly coiffed and dressed administrative assistant and told her my name.  My sister had instructed me to wear a shirt, tie, Sunday pants and shined shoes, and to say very little.  The woman looked me up and down like a drill sergeant conducting an inspection, lip curled in distaste.  But she finally nodded and handed me papers to fill out.  The bank called me back for a second interview a few weeks later, but I’d secured another summer job days before.  I felt some satisfaction after I hung up:  I wouldn’t have to spend the next four months wearing ties and sweating as I ran errands for that unpleasant lady.

I applied the year before at a construction company, and wore jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt when I entered the employment office.  A lady at the desk surveyed my appearance:  my clothes suited the job, but my 150 lbs., 6’2″ frame did not.  She gave me a look of pity and told me to apply elsewhere.  I had done contracting work for my Dad, had decent strength and good stamina, but my muscles didn’t meet her expectations.  I should have pumped iron directly before walking in the door.

Churches have dress codes too.  I attended a Quaker meeting for years, and the rules for men were ill-defined.  Some wore suits, others t-shirts, sandals and khakis.  Shorts were accepted.  Colors other than beige, brown, gray and black seldom brightened the room, however.  Women usually adhered to the fashion guidelines of thrift store chic:  anything was okay as long as it bagged at essential areas and lagged ten years behind current styles.

I now attend a Presbyterian church, and the women mostly wear neatly pressed dresses running down to their knee caps.  Solid pastel colors and discrete floral patterns predominate.  Men wear suits, ties, dress pants.  I recently bought a pair of beige canvas shoes after getting new sneakers.  My old ones were black and could marginally pass inspection, but the new running shoes sport fluorescent blue trim unsuitable to the tone of the gathering.  I didn’t want to stand out as a gaudy bird whenever I crossed my legs at our Sunday school circle.

When I teach art classes I dress according to the collective attitude of the students.  Some classes require the art dude uniform.  I show up in paint stained pants and old shirts to assure them that I’m one of them, the avant garde, the cultural iconoclasts.  I leave a little stubble and don’t bother to trim my beard carefully.  Other classes doubt my credentials, and I wear a more formal ensemble and talk in distant, I-know-my-stuff tones.  Some groups are easily intimidated when I teach the fundamentals.  Direct statements, even if meant to inform and help them improve their drawings, are taken as harsh criticism.  In that case, I wear Hawaiian shirts or bow ties.  Fluorescent blue shirts with palm tree patterns overwhelm only a few.   No one feels threatened by a man wearing a bow tie.

The Steve Allen Show

I used to think that Thoreau’s advice, to never accept a job if it required a new set of clothes, was a good caution against hypocrisy and conformity.  Now I don’t care all that much, and dress for physical and emotional comfort.  Clothes are just a set of signals that introduce me to others.  By dressing the part, I acknowledge the terms of a social situation and show respect.

But sometimes I feel a bit contrary.  On the first day of a painting class, I wore a floral bow tie and a shirt patterned with blue, black, white, red and green.  I laid demonstration paintings on a stage in the middle of the studio.  I discussed the syllabus, showed materials, and pointed out the important qualities of the examples spread before the students.   I told them that the class would emphasize color theory.  “A limited palette,” I said, “let’s you create harmonies even between colors that normally clash.”  They looked back and forth from my clothes to the restrained demonstration paintings.  Their confusion was evident.  I thought, “These are the moments that make teaching worthwhile.”

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Night into Morning

I fall asleep in front of the living room TV around twelve, and wake up around two or three.  Wide awake, I make the habitual mistake of booting my computer.  I check my e-mail, look for messages on Facebook, watch comic routines on YouTube.  I fall back to sleep with my laptop at my side as I lay in bed, and I feel a bit of shame when I wake up with a dark screen beside my pillow, the battery sapped.  And I wonder what played on and on while I drifted off and dreamt odd dreams.

I usually wake up between 7:30 and 8, eventually stumble to the kitchen, search for a semblance of life at the bottom of a coffee cup as I share breakfast with Judy.  The day doesn’t truly begin until sometime after nine when my grogginess finally evaporates like fog in bright sunshine.

Last night I retreated to my room at quarter to twelve after listening to Stephen Colbert’s monologue, and discovered a dog under my cover sheet when I sat on the bed to take off my pants.  Sedgewick had sneaked away early and found shelter for the night. Shakespeare followed me from the living room, jumped onto the bed and settled on the lower left.  I turned off the light and lay on a two foot wide strip of mattress with Sedgewick folded against my spine.  Shakespeare eventually lodged in the crook of my knees, which made rolling over difficult.

At four in the morning my neighbor, Joe, had his latest blow out with a roommate.  (These quarterly festivities are held, inevitably, in the carport fifteen feet away from my window.)  Roommate accused Joe of damaging his truck.  Joe protested his innocence.  Roommate said, “I thought we was brothers.  But now you’re lying to me.  You’re gonna pay for my truck!”  Threats and accusations followed, a heavy motor rumbled to life, and roommate drove away.  He returned a few minutes later, however, and the argument resumed at higher decibels.  No one mentioned a gun or threatened to use one, and I didn’t hear punches landing.  I decided to let it go.  I only call the cops now when a threat of death and permanent damage seem imminent.

Sedgewick stirred at seven and woke me up.  I heard Judy open her door and walk into the hall.  The dogs stayed put, however, and didn’t chase her to the bathroom.  I took a blanket and threw it over their heads to tease them, but they accepted the covering as a gift, settled beneath and fell back to sleep.  I woke them up when I finished morning ablutions, and led them to the back door.  I yawned and batted away mosquitos as the two sniffed, peed, and convened over signs of cat, armadillo, and raccoon incursions.  The clouds hung low and gray, and we didn’t linger long.

I made scrambled eggs for Judy and me, and let Sedgewick mooch a thin shaving of cheese.  We had a good conversation, I washed dishes, and then I took the two dogs for a long walk.  I deposited their droppings under the Cassia bush in the front yard, washed my hands and retreated to my studio.  I listened to a chapter of “A Gentleman In Moscow” as I worked on a painting entitled, “Dog Days”.

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At 10:30 I browned some chicken in a pan and began to prepare lunch. We ate at 11:30, and the morning ended.

 

 

Invasion of the Canines

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My bed, early morning:  sleeping with the enemy.

It began slowly, so slowly that we remained unaware for several days that they had already established a beach head. They pretended to be adorable creatures, uncomplicated beings who lived for simple pleasures.  They fooled us with their cuteness, their large eyes that drew us in and made us want to pet them, feed them, take them for walks.

2 out of 5 dog nests:  colonization has begun.

Before we knew it, our house was cluttered with their food and water bowls, their leashes, harnesses, medicine.  Pillows and sheets lay strewn on the floor in cool spots where they could lounge.  Our house began to seem more like their house as they competed with us for seats on the sofas, as they attempted to control entry and exit by barking at anyone approaching the door.

Our daily schedule shifted until we adopted their Circadian cycles.  I found myself taking them for walks at eleven o’clock at night, the time of day when I normally flip between reruns and the local news while dozing in my recliner.  I learned to look over my shoulder and step carefully while cooking, as the canines tended to hover near my feet waiting for morsels to drop.  Without quite knowing why, I began to give them slivers of cheese as they gazed hypnotically up from the kitchen tiles.  I felt pleasure as I watched them gobble up my offerings…I admit that my will is mostly compromised.

My wife is so far gone that she smiles when they attempt to muscle her out of her spot on the sofa.  One climbs in her lap, stands on its hind legs on her thighs, places its forepaws on her chest, and stares into her eyes.  Judy responds to his aggressive, I-won’t-take-no-for-an-answer approach by hugging  and petting him.

DSC_0355 (2) With Judy under their control, they turn their attention to me.

It will all be over in about a week.  The canines have arranged for our daughter to take them back to Miami, their base of operations.  But will their influence leave with them?  Late evening walks are cool and peaceful in our neighborhood.  I may continue them.  Sharing food, attention and living space with “innocent” creatures has begun to seem normal.  Dogs in my bed, burrowing under my blankets give me a sense of security as I fall asleep.

Where will it end?  Will I start to haunt pet stores and shelters?  Will I stare with envy as dogs parade their owners up and down my street?  Will I even feel a bit of affection for the pit bulls next door who look at me as if I’m a large slab of meat?

I’m like Donald Sutherland in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  another species is trying to take over my life.

 

 

The Miami Pack

 

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Sedge and Shakes

The Book and the Traveler arrived at our house with their Miami pack in tow.  “Sedge” and “Shakes” surveyed us suspiciously, but the Book assured us that they’d be no problem at all.  Judy and I smiled and nodded…We had no choice.  The Book knew that she could count on us for favors, that we couldn’t say no.

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Sedge, the nervous one with searching eyes and the shrill bark of a killer, stared us down as if willing us to make a sudden move.  (We all knew how that would end.)  Shakes studied us carefully to search out our weak points.

Book and Traveler told us a few weeks back that they had to make a trip to Las Vegas to “make presentations at a conference”.  Who knew what they meant by presentations?  I didn’t ask them to describe the attendees.  It was better that I didn’t know.

I drove B and T to the airport and wondered what they had packed in a giant suitcase… Book’s modus operandi is to carry books wherever she goes.  Perhaps she had packed a few extra.  It’s part of her routine to build a fortified nest of texts before she “delivers a paper”.

T talked about distant countries during the drive, the habits of the native folk, the crowded conditions, poverty.  Perhaps his trip to Vegas was yet another scouting mission, but this time to assess the state of American life.  What did he plan to do with this information?

When I arrived home and turned the knob on my front door, a series of sonic disruptions tore through the air.  My eardrums ached as if they had been ruptured.  The intimidation had begun.  Sedge and Shakes had been on the look out, and they met me on the carpet inside the door.  Shakes pounced on my calves, and Sedge circled my ankles as if attempting to trip and take me down.  I stepped  back, and they dashed away.

I anticipated that they would attempt to establish their dominance inside my home.  My fears were confirmed immediately:  they leapt onto sofas in strategic positions and dared me to dislodge them.  They had the high ground.  I slunk to my recliner in defeat and tentatively sat down.  They stared at me, and Sedge yipped once.  Shakes yawned and casually bared his teeth.

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I retreated to the kitchen a few minutes later to put on a roast, and when I returned I saw them lolling on their cushions fast asleep.  They knew that their campaign of  territorial conquest had been successful and that no further effort was necessary.  I skulked away to my bedroom and met Judy in the hall.  She seemed unusually cheerful and reported that our two “guests” had been good company.  Stockholm syndrome:  the first signs.

I avoided Sedge and Shakes for the next hour or two, but an odd sound pulled me out of my room.  Shakes sat in his spot on the sofa and fixed me with a burning look of subdued aggression.  He barked once in a commanding tone.   Judy said, “They want to take you out for…a walk.

I gulped and reached for the leash.  I thought of the scene in The Godfather where three mobsters drive to a remote spot, and two execute the third.  “Leave the gun and take the cannoli,” I thought as I stuffed a plastic pooper bag in my pocket.  Maybe I’d return with a dog deposit.  Maybe I’d not return at all.

They pulled me to a drainage canal and nonchalantly urinated on bushes and random muddy spots.  They tried to chase a squirrel, a lizard, two egrets.  A gentle breeze blew, and I relaxed.  Maybe this was a just a walk after all.  But Sedge suddenly turned toward me and growled.  Shakes took a position on my left flank and waited with a quivering left haunch.  What did they want from me?

I knelt down and patted Sedge on the head, and he licked my hand.  Shakes wagged his tail when I scratched his chest.  I paid my tribute to them, and they accepted me into their pack.  I was a made dog.

Shakes squatted and squeezed out a log.  I picked it up with my plastic bag.  I said, “Good dog,” and they pulled me home.

 

 

Art Country

I recently watched a beer commercial during a break in a hockey game.  It showed a horse running down country roads, streets in small towns, children raising the Stars and Stripes, a firehouse, men shaking hands.  It ended with a father and son standing on a porch.  The sun had begun to set, and one handed a beer to the other.  They smiled reluctantly as if too shy to fully acknowledge the love they felt for each other.  They sipped their beer and looked out over their land.  The horse ran by…

I thought that it might be interesting to see if a sales formula leaning hard on nostalgia, patriotism, and old fashioned hokum could be applied to another American product.  I tried Painting, and failed of course.  But failure can be funny:

 

This is the story of paintings made in the heart of America, in a community where a gallery contract is a bond for the artist (but not so much for the dealer). 

thomas hart benton reaping

Thomas Hart Benton

These are the paintings made for those who took on the challenge of defeating ennui, who found an opportunity to defray the tax costs of inherited wealth, who forged a new hope for a cleverly invested future.

 

jack levine woman fan Jack Levine

 

These paintings were made for a generation willing to sip wine, speculate over risky masters (the ones who stubbornly outlive their most valuable periods), to remember a time when it was easier to choose a bankable artist from amongst the desperate, paint-spattered rabble.

 

Daumier

 

This is a story bigger than painting…This is the story of ART COUNTRY.

 

Roy De ForestRoy DeForest