Driving north on Eastbrook. Pick-up rides my tail as I negotiate speed bumps. Driver turns onto a side street giving me a chance to relax. Oaks and pines slide by in procession; soft golden light filters through rusty and mustard yellow leaves. The sky leans more to mellow ultramarine than to sharp Pthalocyanine blue.
Pack away the groceries and collapse in the drab tan living room recliner. Neck and shoulders tighten in rigid bands, and the back of my head throbs a warning: headache en route. Judy clicks off a PBS nature show (Yellow Snow, Sticky Boulders: the Himalayan Orangutan). Her face softens with affection. Filaments of fine wrinkles branch at the edge of her eyes and glints of silver hair shine on top of her backlit brown. I sink into her eyes, and the misarranged vertebra in my midback lowers the volume of its complaints.
Close my eyes, pray-meditate, and The Comforter eventually comes to offer reassurance and tells me to skip painting that day (my shoulders are too tight). Come out of the ether and push up and out of the chair. Stumble into the kitchen to start supper–heavy arms and legs, groggy head, wish I could lie down and take a nap.
Habit takes over as I chop vegetables on auto-pilot. Garlic, rosemary, oregano hit my nose as corn oil heats in the frying pan. The sound of knife hitting the cutting board thunks firm and familiar. Twilight slants through the window over the sink full of dishes. Wash plates and cups, stir the veg. Add broth and chopped chicken breast; start the burner under the pasta pot.
Dinner table: cream orange place mats, orchids in a basket, flower pattern plates, Italian chicken stew in a brown bowl, pasta in a white. Fill the water pitcher and finally sit down. Dim light filters through gauzy curtains–turn on floor lamp so that we can see squash yellow, carrot orange, bell pepper red.
Judy takes a bite and smiles her thanks. We eat and talk, and I get the feeling that we’ve been doing this forever. This meal, this conversation, this easy moment will echo through time.
Not a profound insight, just the sense that these moments are the ground state.
Speech class, first speech, and the guy down front yawns when I hit the half way point. I already hate my text as Marianne (secret crush who sits in front of me) has turned to the guy next to her to whisper and smirk. I falter, dying at the podium: soaked armpits, shaky knees. Merciless schmuck offers a critique after I slink to my seat: “He started off kind of slow, but then it was like he gave up and mumbled his way to the end.” Classmates nod in agreement. Professor ends the agony by calling out, “Next volunteer!”
Ramsey leads us up a flight of stairs to a second floor conference room. We’re puffing, but the old prof eases into his chair and drawls in his flat monotone, “I’ve got a resting heart rate of fifty beats per minute and my blood pressure is 80 over 60.” After class, I imitate Ramsey for the benefit of a fellow sufferer. I imagine the professor in bed with his wife: “Ohh baby, I’m reaady fer youuu. My blood pressure is up to 90 over 65, and my resting heart rate is pummmping along at 62. Come to Papaaa.”
Smart Ass (but not as clever as he thinks) comes to my table and sees me working on a drawing. Says, “Is that your real work–I mean, not a class demo?” I nod, and he burbles, “That’s really good. You’re talented. Maybe I’ll buy it at the end of the semester.” Bullshit. I nod and wait for him to go away. Next week he complains about the amount of homework assigned. Says, “I bet you think that your class is the most important thing in the world.” Stare him down to make him retreat while biting my tongue. Want to say, “Nope, getting laid on a regular basis is a lot more important.”
Brush a stroke of gray onto a monochrome demo for a Drawing I class. Five out of ten students have showed up on time, and I can feel them willing me to stop. They want to be Anywhere Else, but cranky old professor makes them show up and draw. I refuse to stop, describe the next step and continue the demo. Turn to see Marianne staring at me hollow-eyed–a soulless child of the damned. Lorenzo’s Instagram page shines up at him from his phone. Heather studies the charcoal dust gathered in a heavy film on the ventilation ducts near the ceiling. I can’t find the right words and stutter over the wrong. Flop sweat.
Joey walks in as I go through my wrap up reminders (do this first and second, but never do this unless you want to destroy your drawing) but doesn’t come over to listen. Drops his bag at an easel instead. Comes over after everyone has begun to work and asks, “Hey, so what are we doin’ tonight?” “Painting with acrylic.” He waits for me to go on. Asks me, “So, we’re painting?” “Yup, we’re painting.”
Pull out a small sketchbook during break time and draw abstracted shapes: students slumping, staring, turning away. Bored and dull. The drawing makes me laugh. Karma might be a bitch, but revenge is mine.
(AMA definition: a condition in which a college instructor experiences heart palpitations, spiked blood pressure, reddening of the face, sputtering, and a deepening sense of futility. Severe cases developing from prolonged exposure to indifferent students may result in sudden head explosion syndrome.)
Robin Ross, mother of three, devoted English instructor, began to sputter incoherently during class. Students could not specify a cause for the sudden development of speech paralysis, but one volunteered the following: “Professor Ross was droning on about grammar or something, and Natalie’s phone buzzed. Nat took the call, and the prof said, ‘Put that away!” Nat said, ‘But it’s my mother,” and Ross’s face turned red, her eyes bugged, and then she started to talk in this garbled way. We didn’t call an ambulance right away because Natalie’s mother (she’s a nurse) told us that the professor was getting mad over nothing and she’d get over it soon.”
Rupert Brinkley, drawing instructor, suddenly began to strike a table with his forehead after an interaction with a student named Colin. Colin: “I want to ask about my midterm grade. What are these zeros on the grade sheet?” Rupert: “Those are drawings missing from your midterm portfolio. After the zeros are dates and titles of assignments. You can make them up if you turn them in by Monday.” Colin: “But I was a late enrollee. The first two zeros are on dates before I started class.” Rupert: “You’re still responsible for them.” Colin: “Well, I did them!” Rupert: “No you didn’t.” Colin: “But I did!” Rupert: “You just told me that you didn’t do them because you hadn’t been in class on those days.” Colin: “I wasn’t in class on those days and I shouldn’t have to do them!” Rupert: “So, you didn’t do them.” Colin: “No, I did them!” Rupert: “But they weren’t in your portfolio. I can’t grade drawings I can’t see.” Colin: “You must have missed them.” Rupert: “I went through the drawings twice. I didn’t miss them.” Colin: “Then you lost them.” Rupert: “I lost the drawings you didn’t do because you’re a late enrollee?” Colin: “You’re just trying to confuse me!”
Dr. Jackie Doherty, a calculus instructor, entered a Zen Buddhist monastery after suffering a break down at the end of a semester. A male student had continually questioned her knowledge during class and challenged the grades given to him on exams. He cornered her in an empty classroom and demanded a passing grade after failing the final exam. Dr. Doherty refused, and the student leered at her and said, “You’re just doing this because you like this thing we have between us.” “Thing? What thing?” Doherty exclaimed. “You know,” said the student. “Don’t be such a tease.”
Professor Ralph Givens quit teaching and entered therapy for depression after an encounter with a student during a perspective drawing class. Ralph: “These parallel lines are moving away from your position. They appear to converge to a point on the horizon if extended into the distance.” Student: “I thought that they converge as they come toward me.” Ralph: “Then things would get smaller as they approach you and bigger as they recede?” Student: “Recede?” Ralph: “Move away from you.” Student: “Why didn’t you just say that?” Ralph: “I’m just trying to explain. There’s no need to get angry.” Student: “Don’t tell me not to get angry. I’ll get angry when I want to!” Ralph: “Draw those boxes any way you like then, but I own the grade book.” Student: “You’re going to force me to draw things I don’t see? You’re threatening to give me a bad grade if I draw what’s right for me?!” Ralph: “I’m just trying to warn you that I’m going to grade your drawings according to accepted rules of perspective.” Student: “You’re killing my creativity!”
Hans sat back in his chair and answered a question from a friend: “Oh, I haven’t been here for the last two weeks because I had stents inserted into two cardiac arteries. I felt tired all the time and noticed that I got winded even when walking up a little hill. The doctors told me that I had blockages, and the next day I went to the hospital.”
A gray haired woman queried, “Why didn’t you let us know?”
Hans said, “Well, it happened so fast, and I didn’t think that anyone here could help. And my housekeeper brought me food after I got out of the hospital. I was fine.”
Weeks later Hans told us a bit about his history: “I grew up in Germany and lived in Berlin near the end of the war. Oh, yah, I was a Hitler Youth. We all were in the Hitler Youth. No one gave us a choice, and we knew better than to question our orders…We hid in cellars and had nothing to eat or drink when the Russians came. I got work after the fall of Berlin with a mechanic who beat me when he felt like it. Sometimes I worked too slowly, and sometimes I made mistakes. Sometimes he got drunk and wanted to hit someone, and I was the nearest. We could travel from East Berlin to West on the commuter trains, and one day I heard that they were starting to build a wall to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. I decided that I had to go but didn’t tell anyone. I packed a school bag with a book and an apple and got onto a train. I had a few marks in my pocket. I told the conductor a story about why I planned to visit West Berlin, and border agents went through the cars to check identification cards when we neared the outskirts of West Berlin. My heart thumped in my chest, and I was sure that they would pull me off the train. The secret police could make people disappear. The agent studied my cards and gave me a hard look, but then he handed them back and passed down the aisle.”
“I came to the United States in the mid sixties. A Quaker couple sponsored me. They advised me on colleges and helped me win a scholarship to MIT. I did well enough to graduate and found a job here in Wilmington working for Dupont. So here I am.”
Hans crossed his long legs and gave us a weary smile.
This color pencil drawing of a puppy is not cute. It doesn’t express the sentiment that doggies are wonderful. Instead, the drawing questions whether a canine image can supplant the paradigmatic construction of “dog-ness” in a viewer’s mind. The syrupy approach calls into question the fawning nature of all portraiture (the privileging of one person’s mien over all others within the gilded confines of the artificial, faux-precious canvas-in-frame space). A dog replaces a human face, thus devaluing the species-centric ascendancy of the homo sapien visage.
The artist pictured above is not a sell out for drawing said puppy. His choice of colored pencils (the medium of amateurs) self-critiques his role as a dominant image maker in a paternalistic art market. His apparent prostitution of his talents is a false maneuver, a coded rebellion against the strictures of the artist-as-revolutionary model. By drawing a greeting card image, he storms the dual citadels of Clement Greenbergian Flatness and Frank Stella’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get Dicta.
And while calling into question the pillars of post-war Modernism, he avoids the pitfalls of Post-Modernism. His straight forward, irony-free depiction deconstructs deconstruction by asserting the possibility of Sincerity. Even as he tears down traditional conventions of portraiture and the role of the modern artist, he builds (constructs) true possibility.
The puppy isn’t cute, and the image is not puppy-ness, and the artist has not made a signifying object of any importance. But the defiant act of wrapping himself in unapologetic triteness lifts him like Icarus above the binding gravity of professional integrity:
Last night I sat on a hard plastic chair in an empty waiting room of a bus station. A sign near the counter in the next room told me that travelers had to report to a reception window, cash was not accepted, and no cash was kept on the premises. Another sign on the wall across from me said, “Smile, you’re on camera.” A window to the right had spider web cracks that shattered outwards from an impact crater.
I read an opening chapter from “Raven Black”, a thriller by Ann Cleeves, to pass the time while I waited for my daughter’s bus to arrive. I had just passed the point where a young woman had been found strangled in a field. Ravens pecked her eyes out. A strange man who lived in a crooked shack at the top of a nearby hill had been implicated in the disappearance of a girl twenty years before. The locals suspected that he had been at it once again. The victim’s father visited the woman who had found the body as he couldn’t face coming home to an empty house. Police had begun to interview the dead girl’s friends and associates.
Two guys emerged from behind the bus station counter and exited. I followed them to a nearby parking lot and saw a double decker bus pull up. A few passengers straggled off, but my daughter wasn’t among them. I checked the sign on the bus, and it said “Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Orlando”. Annie’s route. Annie’s bus. No Annie.
I wandered back toward the bus station thinking that she might have slipped by me. Perhaps she waited for me inside the bus station. Perhaps… Scenes from the novel danced in my head, and lightning flashed in a distant thunderhead. Dark figures crossed the nearly deserted lot.
.A second bus rumbled up to the disembarkation zone. This one was full, and the countermen took several minutes to unload luggage. Annie appeared at the exit door near the driver, and I smiled and waved.
Ravens, if any lurked about, would have to go hungry that night.
*I once gave my wife Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to read on a bus trip (I stayed behind). She called the next morning to yell at me as the story is about a road trip that goes horribly awry (a family gets waylaid, shot and executed by an escaped killer). I finally got my karmic payback 30 years later.
We dressed in our best clothes and drove slowly to a funeral home on Wayne Avenue. The two-story Victorian mansion loomed over the manicured grounds, and the prospect of seeing my dead grandmother lying in her coffin became eerier. The heavy curtains, dim lights and hushed atmosphere inside confirmed my fears. A door off a half hidden side hall could have easily led to a basement crypt worthy of a tale from Edgar Allen Poe.
My sister chose a more modern looking establishment for her funeral. The parlor could have passed itself off as a small business office, but it sat on an isolated lot. Dire function dictated location. The carpeted halls, floral wallpaper, innocuous paintings and flower arrangements reminded me of a modern hotel striving and failing to create a sense of old fashioned hominess. I found myself longing for the muted Addams Family creepiness of the Wayne Avenue home. Victorian gloom fit better with the utter strangeness of saying good bye to a body that once belonged an athlete, a tough chick, a loving mom.
Today I passed by a strip mall in southeastern Orlando. I saw a cut-rate funeral parlor on a site cheek to jowl with a Dollar General. A McDonald’s, a Goodyear Tire Store and a chiropractor’s office sat on lots just down the road. I got the impression that buying fast food, a tire rotation, and therapy for a kinked back could be items on an itinerary that included sending Aunt JoJo into the Great Beyond.
Death, of course, is a part of life, but we may have slipped a bit in honoring the momentous nature of the occasion.