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 blind willfulness and occasionally grace.



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  I drove to Oviedo, but a barbershop near Home Depot had been replaced by a fitness center.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.

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.”


My Wife Doesn’t Support the Arts


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.



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