A Sense of Humor Helps

There are many ways to judge whether a relationship might work. Sharing or at least tolerating each other’s sense of humor is one. When my wife and I dated I sometimes cooked a meal for us, and one night Judy held up her plate with a pathetic orphan look on her face and said, “Please, sir, may I have more?” My eyes popped wide as I recognized a speech from Oliver Twist. My previous girlfriend had thought that Steven King novels were the height of literature, and Judy quoted Dickens. My heart leapt with joy.

I had first studied biology in college, and Judy was in the process of earning her Ph.D. in plant physiology when we met and married. On our honeymoon in Maine we climbed to the top of a mountain in Acadia National Forest. A cold breeze blew as we stood on a rocky plateau at the top, and a thick fog surrounded us on all sides. She pulled a sweatshirt out of her backpack, and her head got stuck inside as she attempted to push her arms through the sleeves. She stood with her arms waving over what appeared to be a headless torso and I said, “My wife, the hydra.” She started laughing, and it took her a bit longer to emerge.

When Judy got pregnant with our first child we went to an OB/GYN group in State College. We saw four doctors on a round robin basis, and some could be gruff and rude. Judy appreciated it when I nicknamed a sixty year old man, a former army doctor, who kept advising Judy to watch her weight. His name was Wengrovitz, but we privately referred to him as Vinegar Tits. Dr. Mebbane gave us stern lectures at odd moments, and we hoped that he wouldn’t be on call when it came time for the delivery. We held up our arms in crosses as if warding off a vampire when we discussed him and called out, “Med Bane” in hopes of repelling him.

I rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and sometimes sing my version of Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” in the morning while making breakfast.  Original version:  “You are so beautiful, to me.  You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for.  You’re everything I need.  You are so beautiful, to me.”  My version: “You look available, to me. You are everything I’d ever settle for. You’re the only woman I see. You look available…to me.” Judy doesn’t take offense but comments on how romantic I’ve become over our years together.

We got new flip phones a few months ago. Sometimes my phone emits rapid bursts of beeps when I walk with it in a pants pocket, and it woke me up one night with a beep and flash of light as it rested on my bureau. Judy took it from me when it sounded off during a meal and searched through the menu. I asked her to look for a “random bullshit” button that she could turn off. She went through a bunch of applications, but didn’t find anything that might help. She handed it back and drily said, “Sorry, they don’t list ‘random bullshit’ anywhere.”

 

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My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts

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It all started with her African violets.  Judy asked me to watch over them while she went away for a few days to a plant physiology conference.  I put them in my bedroom, admired the round forms of their leaves, and decided to do a series of charcoal drawings.  The series went well as I recorded the gradual descent of the stems, the drooping and dropping of the leaves.  When she returned I showed her the drawings before I returned her plants, and I waited for her to praise how closely I watched over them, how I put all my powers of observation into making a faithful record.  Instead she cried, “You didn’t water them!  They’re half dead!”  Her outburst shocked me.  How could she not understand that true art is about the cycle of life and death, the drama of mortality?  Her plants may have given up their lives, but they had made a worthy sacrifice for Art.

I decided to ignore her odd sense of priorities and married her, but the early days of cohabitation were fraught with tension.  Judy objected one day when she found me in the kitchen mixing painting solutions (varnish, stand oil, paint thinner) at the dining table.  She exclaimed, “We eat there!”  “Of course we do,” I replied.  “Are you saying that a table has only one function?”  She couldn’t find an adequate response to my query, but I agreed to mix my painting media on the back steps.  I thought, “This is how it starts.”

A few months later she asked me where the hammer was.  She’d rummaged through the tool chest and the drawers in the kitchen and couldn’t find it.  I said, “I’m using it in a still life.  Don’t touch it.  I’ll be done with it in a month or two.”  She shook her head in disbelief and failed to comment on my innovative use of nontraditional subject matter in a genre filled to overflowing with fruit ‘n flower paintings.  I began to wonder if I’d married badly.

DSC_0260 (2)Cat and Hammer, Oil/Canvas, 1985

Three years later she forced me to shut down my studio in a spare bedroom in our duplex apartment in State College.  I had to relocate to a cold and drafty basement and work wearing a coat during the winter months.  At the time of my banishment Judy was seven months pregnant and refused to listen to my objections.  She said, “We have to get the baby’s room ready now.”  I began to suspect that she placed more importance on family than on Culture. So bourgeois.

And then one day about six months later, she came down to the basement with a load of laundry on one arm and our daughter on the other.  I thoughtfully interrupted an intense painting session to warn her to not step on a tube of oil paint that I had left, for a no longer recalled strategic purpose, on the floor drain in front of the washer.  I gathered from the pained look she gave me that she thought that I should quit working and move the tube.  I gallantly ignored her unreasonable expectations and began to rework a difficult passage that I’d been struggling with for days.  (The demands my paintings made on me often left me exhausted and mentally battered, but I had become used to making sacrifices.)  I barely noticed when she slammed the lid to the washer and retreated with baby back up the basement stairs–stomp, stomp, stomp.  “Some people,” I thought, “have it so easy.”

This morning I set up my French folding easel in my bathroom and began a palette knife self-portrait.  I spent an hour or two.  Judy wondered what kept me out of sight for so long, and I asked her if she’d like to see how I had managed to turn yet another room into a studio.  She stared at my work arrangement and the newly begun painting, but instead of expressing wonder at my ingenuity she said, “I guess this means that you’ll be using my bathroom a lot.”

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My wife.  The muse.

I Showed Her

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My wife told me that she wanted to rearrange the kitchen, to move the fridge to the north wall and put a small table in its place next to the kitchen sink.  I said, “No.  I do most of the cooking, and I’m used to having the fridge close to the work counter.”  The argument ended, but when I came back from a short trip to Gainesville the deed had been done.  Judy got our two kids to help her push the fridge to the north wall while I was away.

When I returned I walked in the door, hugged the kids, kissed Judy, and suspected nothing.  But when I went into the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge by the sink,  I found it elsewhere.  I spun around and saw her smiling at me.  I protested, but she said nothing.  Instead she gave me a challenging look as if daring me to come up with a reason to move it back.  I said, “You know I’ve been planning to paint a mural right where you put that fridge.”

“Mural?  What mural?” she asked.

“A landscape…of a place you like…It’ll be a reminder.”

“The Smokies?” she asked.  “You’ll paint a mural of the Smokies!?”

“Sure.  You pick a picture from our last trip there.”

We pulled out a photo album, and she chose a scene with trees hanging over a path cutting through a wood: dappled light, intricate interlacing of branches and foliage, contrasting textures of boulders, tree bark, leaves, sky and dirt.  I looked at it and gulped.  I knew that a subject that complicated would take months.

“Are you sure you want that one?” I asked.  “What about this distant view of the mountains in fog?”

“No.  This is the best.  Can you do it?”

“Of course I can.” I answered feeling a bit nettled.  Did she think that I was an amateur?  “Now can I move the fridge back?”

“I’ll help you,” she said sweetly.

I began to paint the next weekend.  I marked off the boundaries with masking tape and laid out my composition with a few lines.  I blocked in big color shapes.  Two hours passed, and I realized that I had barely made a dent.  But anything for a just cause.  The fridge must stay in its rightful place.

The mural took three months to complete, and I was weary of the project by the time I laid down the last brushstrokes.  I knew that I could drag it out a lot longer if I felt like punishing myself with a lot of tedious detail, but decided that enough was enough.

I called Judy into the kitchen and said, “It’s done.”  She stared at it for a long time, and then she hugged me and said, “Thank you.”  I knew that it reminded her of a family trip to her favorite place on earth.  I tried hard not to feel  happy for her, but failed.

I put away my paints, and while I cleaned my brushes I tried to reclaim some vengeful satisfaction.  I had thwarted her plans to change the kitchen.  I hadn’t let her get away with a sneaky maneuver.  I had outwitted her even if it had taken a long time to pull it off.

I was the man…in charge.

I showed her.  Yeah, I really showed her.

 

Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

Entering Into the Retirement Zone

I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce.  I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet.  But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.

And I had another realization:  my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled.  I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art.  If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices.  I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork.  The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch.  Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.

And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go.  It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc.  I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good.  The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.

I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.  Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages.  Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage.  I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely.  In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times.  I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism.  I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.

It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am.  The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me.  Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.

The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend.  To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”

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The Right Thing

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Sarah Kunkel closed the blinds and pulled back the sheets on her double bed.  She sat down by the pillows, took a damp hand cloth from a bowl on her night stand and lay down.  She gently pressed the cloth to her forehead and closed her eyes.

Her migraine rested like a sleeping porcupine on the right side of her head, but sent out sharp quills to probe the back of her eyes every minute or so.  Sarah felt as though her head would eventually split in two when the malevolent creature woke up and clawed again at the tender connections inside her brain.  She hummed a lullaby in the hope that she might fall asleep.  Her mother sang it to her when she was a sick little girl, and it had worked like magic.  But Sarah stopped when the vibrations on her lips became vibrations in her skull.  Pulsations of dull pain already thudded in time with her heartbeat, and she couldn’t bear adding another rhythm to the mix.

She began to feel blessed sleep descend upon her ten minutes later.  The few remaining unaffected corners of her mind rejoiced as her limbs grew heavy and her breath began to slow.  She saw a vista open up before her of mountains topped with glaciers and Alpine meadows filled with flowers.  She took a deep breath and smelled roses and newly mown grass, honeysuckle and lilacs.  A figure clothed in dazzling white robes walked toward her.

But then the door to the bedroom opened a crack.  A shaft of light from the hall pierced the darkness.  The door swung in, and a man stood in the doorway but didn’t come into the room.  His back lit silhouette looked familiar.  But he wouldn’t dare, would he?  Not again?

The silhouette spoke in a low rumbly voice.  It was Jeff, of course, but she couldn’t quite make out his words.

“Oh for God’s sake, Jeff!  Close the door and a leave me alone.  Can’t you see I’ve got a migraine?”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble.”  He stood there and faltered his apologies.  She couldn’t take it.  He had visited every single night since that horrible day last week when their marriage had fallen and shattered into a thousand splinters of betrayal.  Now the shards were embedded inside her skull, and his visits just pushed them in deeper.

“Jeff!” she screamed and regretted it instantly.  A bloody tsunami swelled in the back of her head and raced forward to tear at the roots of her nerves.  She held her head, moaned and nearly passed out…If only she could pass out she’d praise the gods forever…When she was able to speak again she said, “Come closer so that I can hear you.  You’re killing me.  Tell me what you want and go away.”

He shuffled into the room with his head down and sat near the foot of the bed.  She pulled her hand away when he took it, but he persisted.  She was too weak to fight him.  He leaned closer and whispered, “I did the right thing.”

“I know what you did,” said Sarah.

“Please listen,” whispered Jeff.

“You cheated on me.  That was the wrong thing, stupid.  You can’t talk your way around that.  It’s over and done.  You can’t take it back,” said Sarah.

“I slept with Rhonda, but I did the right thing.”

“Rot in hell, Jeff.  And please, please go away.  Why are you torturing me?  What did I do to you to make you so cruel?”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeff insisted.

“What?  You’re going to tell me that it was just a mistake?  She came on to you and you felt sorry for her?  She told the cops that you were the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”

“I didn’t feel sorry for her.  I just wanted her,” admitted Jeff.

“I see.  Now we’re being honest.  At long last we’re being honest,” said Sarah.

“I didn’t come in here to apologize for the affair.  I know that you’re never going to forgive me for that, and I don’t expect you to,” said Jeff.

“So?”

“I just want you to know that I didn’t want to leave you.  That was never my intention,” said Jeff.

“Bullshit.  The moment you went to bed with her was the moment you left me,” said Sarah.

Jeff released her hand and turned away.  Over his shoulder he said, “You’re not angry because of the affair.  You’re angry because I’m leaving.”

“Shut up Jeff.  Go away.  Make me happy and leave.”

“Not until I tell you the whole story.  I promise I’ll go away and never return after I say what I have to say,” said Jeff.

“That’s a deal, but keep it short.  My head’s about to explode.”

“Rhonda’s husband George interrupted us last Tuesday.  We heard the car pull up, and I managed to run out the back door.  But he saw my wallet on the floor by the bed.  It fell out when I grabbed my pants.  I heard him roar, ‘Whose wallet is this?!’  She screamed.  I crept up to the bedroom window and saw him slap her.  Then he punched her in the stomach and she fell down on the floor.  She tried to crawl away from him on hands and knees, but he kicked her in the ribs.”

“Stop it stop it stop it!  I don’t want to hear any of this!” wailed Sarah.

“I did the right thing,” said Jeff.  “I went back inside and fought with George.  Rhonda got away.”

“Well good for you.  You did the right thing.  You’re my hero.  Are we finished here?”

“Yes, Sarah.  I’m finished.”

He got up off the bed and walked to the door without looking back.  The light from the hall blinded her, and she closed her eyes.  When she opened them again the door was shut and he was gone.

Sarah woke up early the next morning, and the migraine had retreated.  She snapped on a lamp by her bed and saw the wedding photo of her and Jeff framed in gold on top of her dresser.  It was surrounded by an arrangement of white flowers.  She trudged over to the dresser, pried off the cardboard backing and took out the picture.  She stared at it intently for a few seconds and came to a decision:  she tore it in half to separate her image from his and tossed young, still faithful Jeff into the trash can at her feet.

The scrap landed on a thick piece of cream colored paper scrolled with black leaves and flowers.  Beneath the header was a reproduction of a photo of Jeff taken a few months ago when he and Sarah celebrated their twentieth anniversary.  Beneath that a script of heavy gothic letters read, “In memoriam:  Jeffrey Kunkel, beloved son and husband.”