Race Relations and AC Repair

Last week I woke up one morning to the sound of my heat pump/air conditioner in its death throes.  The fan in the outside unit clicked on.  A noise best described as “ZZZZRUMPFFFF!” followed.  The unit clicked off, then tried to function again a few minutes later.  Each zzzzrumffff made the light on my dresser grow dim.

The AC tech came out that morning, hooked up meters and told me to turn on the cooling function at his signal.  I hovered for a bit, but left him alone when my presence appeared to make him nervous. I got the feeling that he thought I didn’t trust him.

He ran a series of tests and told me that the motor on the condenser was seizing up each time it started.  Extra power got pulled out of the electric line, and a kill switch turned off and reset the unit for another attempt a few minutes later.  He told me that he couldn’t give me an estimate for a new model (he just did repairs), but added that my upcoming purchase of an air conditioner would be the last one that I’d ever make.  I asked him, “So, how soon do you expect me to die?”  He could tell that I was teasing him and started to laugh.  I added, “Just how old do you think I am?”  He covered his mouth, turned away and laughed again. “You sound just like my uncle,” he said.

Somehow the conversation drifted to genealogy.  He mentioned that he had Asian ancestry and that he wanted to retire somewhere in Southeast Asia.  He had grown up on Trinidad (his accent had a Caribbean lilt), and had lived in South Florida where he experienced little racial discrimination.  When he moved to Orlando he found himself singled out and abused more.  He told us that when he visited the Philippines he blended in with little trouble.  He wanted to find a place where he could live in peace and do a bit of farming.

He looked intently at my wife and me and seemed to struggle as he tried to reconcile our friendliness to him with our skin color.  He finally said, “You guys look European.”  I said, “Judy’s people came to America in the 1700s, and I was born in Ohio.”

He tried to process that information, but returned to his default setting.  “Yeah,” he countered, “but you look European.”

“We don’t look like our ancestors came over on the Mayflower,” I tried to clarify.

“European,” he said.

I decided that he meant that as a compliment, and we parted on good terms.  Later in the day it occurred to me that European countries had colonized huge chunks of the Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Native populations had been mistreated and exploited.  Some of those invaders must have looked like me.

Judy’s folks originated in Alsace-Lorraine, and mine in southern Germany.  Maybe we’ll retire some place in Bavaria, blend in and do a little farming.  But I expect someone will eventually come up to me and say, “You look Australian.”


Sunday, Sunday

Aloma was wide open on Sunday morning, but a motorcycle came up abruptly and perched close behind my bumper before I’d traveled 100 yards west toward Semoran.  When we reached the light, he abruptly switched into the far left turn lane, made a U-turn and headed east.  A black sports car sat in the near left turn lane beside me.  A hairy arm rested on the top of the shotgun door, and a white script on the doorframe just behind him read, “Yeah, I know.  License and registration.”

A homeless guy wearing sunglasses,  a gray coat, and a tassel cap suddenly appeared at the head of the line.  He sported a thick but neatly trimmed beard and looked well fed.  He made his way between cars holding a “Please help me” cardboard sign.  He scowled as he ambled along, and I pretended not to see him.  Across the intersection a gaunt man with blond hair made similar rounds amongst the stopped cars.  He wore a heavy winter coat and walked with a pronounced limp.  I had seen him the day before on my way in to work, and then he had paced on the median without any sign of discomfort until a motorist pulled up to the light.

The motorcyclist growled to a stop in the far left turn lane once more (I recognized his green helmet and white and green striped jacket.), took another U-turn and headed east.  I said to Judy, “This guy’s doing laps.”  As we finally started up I saw a van blast through a red light four or five seconds after it had changed.  A guy in a low slung Beemer with gold plated drum wheels snarled by as we headed toward Winter Park, and cars tailgated and weaved in and out of lanes to cut each other off.

Church was calm, and the sermon did not particularly enlighten or offend.  I stood in line to get some coffee and water in the rec hall after the service ended.  An ancient woman toddled forward ahead of me, and a younger woman suddenly accosted her.  Younger said with a bright smile, “Wasn’t that sermon lovely?”  Ancient growled, “Today was all right.  Keep the stupid ones away.”  The younger woman’s smile faltered, and she quickly made her escape.  Ancient reached the coffee stand attended by a man in his eighties who kindly asked her if she wanted coffee.  Ancient glared at him and declared, “Not in those Styrofoam cups!”  He didn’t follow what she said and asked her again if she wanted anything.  She barked, “Not until you replace these cups!”  He didn’t comply, and she marched away with her chin held high toward a table laden with cookies and fudge brownies.

When we drove home the homeless guys had left their posts even though the wind had died and the temperature had risen five degrees.  Cars cut in and out, but no one seemed truly intent on maiming fellow drivers.  One sensed that an uneasy truce had been arranged.

Judy and I got lunch.  As we sat talking, I remembered a moment in the service that made our Sunday morning expedition worthwhile.  A three year old girl had sat attentively near the junior pastor during a “children’s moment” at the altar.  When the lesson ended, the junior pastor and the kids exited down the center aisle.  But the little girl wandered up the altar steps toward the lectern.  Her father hustled up, took her in his arms, and then led her in pursuit of the other kids.  I saw her mouth a few words to Dad as he hurried her along.  She said, “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”

It’s About Being Creative

I sometimes encountered a bass player named David in a floating garage band that met in two places. Each location had its own roster of musicians, but I limped along at both venues strumming rhythm guitar. I was mediocre at best.  One day David chided me about my playing and said, “You know, sometimes it’s about being creative!”

He referred to my uninspired chords when we played extended jams that spiraled out for ten minutes plus. All songs stayed in E, and I ran out of ways to vary my approach after the first three minutes. I wanted to tell Dave that I might be a bit more creative if I had played guitar as long as he had, but I expected no understanding from him. He’d forgotten that he’d sucked when he first picked up a guitar, no longer remembered that his creativity was the product of instincts and muscle memory built up over years of practice.

I eventually gave up playing music in a group when it became clear that I didn’t have the drive or talent to improve significantly, and when I realized that I felt no special thrill even when I managed contribute a few choice licks. It all seemed a bit mechanical and boring compared to writing a poem or painting a picture.

Years earlier I met similar criticism at the University of Delaware. One instructor pressured me to vary the surface texture of my paintings (he made thick, painterly abstractions). Another criticized the stiffness and timidity of my brushwork. He demonstrated what he meant by taking my brush and making quick, fluid strokes that enlivened dead passages on my painting. Both professors expressed frustration with me when I did not follow their advice. They assumed that I was a tightly wound, repressed individual who would forever cling to a narrow range of effects.

I understood what they wanted, but couldn’t deliver it. I had to paint another seven or eight years before my brushwork became more spontaneous, before I learned how to paint thick, expressive passages with complex textures.

In both music and painting I understood that “it’s about being creative,” but I had a deeper desire to improve when it came to making fine art. And I gave myself time to experiment and fail. My painting technique eventually grew freer, the results got better, and my creativity blossomed.

I recently grew irritated with a student who rigidly stuck to her customary mode when painting an abstraction. She continually reverted to copying from a subject verbatim, held her brush in a death grip, and made scratchy little marks.  She refused to create rhythmic distortions in shapes, to flatten forms, to experiment with color. Instead she turned her picture into a muddy Impressionist mess.

I felt an urge to tell her to loosen up, to experiment, to make new choices. I almost said, “You know, it’s about being…”


All This Useless Beauty

Wikipedia reports that the above phrase was the title of an Elvis Costello album recorded in the 90s.  Elvis gave it that moniker in the expectation that the music would be largely ignored, and he was proven correct.  The album tanked. I doubt that I’ve heard any of the tracks, but the phrase stuck in my mind.

My work as an artist has largely been met with indifference when it comes to sales, and I can look at rack after rack filled with still lives, landscapes, portraits, narrative paintings that I made to discover or feel something new.  They are the remnants of my explorations, markers on a map, and as such are useless even if occasionally beautiful.

The involuntary sequestering of my work used to bother me, but does so less and less.  I’m glad that I made all those prints, paintings and drawings, and it’s too late to take them back.  I didn’t waste my time even if they end up in a dumpster after I’m dead.  I believe that the thoughts and feelings they revealed still echo through the ether, still send out ripples of influence if only through the marks they made on me.  Making them changed me, and changed the way I interacted with the world around me.

I sometimes see God as a flamboyant creator.  All these galaxies of stars!  All these creatures clamoring for life, all these souls yearning for truth and beauty.  Such complexity and such simplicity wrapped together in a bundle of bundles as one universe births another.  Is there any point to all this?  Is it just an exuberant outpouring, an endless process of becoming?

There’s probably no point in worrying about what Creation means.  Perhaps it’s enough to watch in wonder and add a little bit to all this useless beauty.

Napping Out of Control

Ed woke up from a nap, yawned and stretched, sat up straight on the sofa.  He asked me, “What time is it?”  I said, “Three,” and he replied, “That late?!  I’ve been napping out of control!”

Judy described Pine, Colorado, the little town near her brother’s house in the Rocky Mountain foothills.  She said, “There’s the Bucksnort Tavern, and there’s a drive by library.”  My eyes widened, and then we laughed.  I pantomimed a murderous librarian idling along a curb while slinging hard backs at cringing pedestrians.  Judy went on to explain that the library was a box on the side of a building.  Books could be borrowed or returned according to whim.

When my daughter Annie was a toddler she suffered from food allergies, and we had to carefully monitor her diet.  One thing she could have was granola.  When snack time came midafternoon, we sometimes said, “You can have half a granola bar.”  When we asked her one day what she wanted (peaches were another option), she called out, “Half!”

One day I sat writing bills, grumbling as I balanced the check book.  My water bill was high.  The city of Casselberry had taken over our service a two decades before, and still charged our neighborhood an exorbitant rate.  Annie (now a twenty year old) asked me what I was doing.  I said, “Just writing a check for the Castle of Shitzelberry.”

I recently read a feature about how airline attendants punish surly flights of passengers.  Changes in altitude apparently cause an intestinal upwelling of gas, and our friends in the sky walk up and down the aisle near the end of a flight to “dust the crops”.

Jack worked in the kitchen at a pizza restaurant with me, and when he wanted to go home early he would begin to sing loudly enough for the diners to hear.  He chose Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” one night, but substituted his own version of the lyrics.  The song became, “Another one bites the crust, another one bites the crust.  Hey, it’s gonna get to you!  Another one bites the crust!”  That got Zukavecki the night manager to come running.  Zukavecki told Jack to keep it down and that he had to finish his shift.  Jack waited until the manager left the kitchen, and then belted out another Queen song:  “Bohemian Rhapsody”.   He focused on the “let me go” section singing, “Zukavecki let me go, Let me go, Zukavecki let me go, He will not let me go,  Let me go go gooooo.  Bee–ell–zuh–bub’s got a devil for a son in me, in ME.”  Zukavecki let him go.

Sometimes when I’ve completed a job I announce, “It is Swedished.”  My kids know better than to ask me what I mean by that.  If they do I say, “Why should the Finns get all the credit?”


I walked into a store in a glowering bad mood, mostly stared at the floor, and avoided talking to anyone.  The clerks’ radar warned them away, but when I checked out the cashier glared at me and fairly tossed my purchases into a bag.  I hadn’t been rude to anyone, hadn’t lashed out, but my concentrated internal bile broadcast it’s presence and finally drew the response it had expected all along.

I visited a museum and wandered from room to room looking at paintings, thinking about how they had been made, visiting the gift shop to look for a book about one particular painter.  A docent standing at the welcome desk called across the floor and “asked” in a harsh tone, “Sir, you look confused.  Do you need some help?”  I had come from my studio dressed in shabby who-cares-if-I-get-paint on these clothes.  The museum sat on the northern edge of downtown Orlando where homeless people took shelter on benches, in doorways, in wooded areas.  I believe the docent feared the intrusion of the unwanted, unwashed crowd, and saw me, a patron who had purchased admission, in that light.  My intense interest in art could be interpreted as mental illness because of my appearance.

I felt sick off and on for three months with odd palpitations in my chest, fatigue and breathlessness.  I eventually went to a chiropractor who said that the vertebrae in my mid back were pinching a nerve that sent sensations into my chest.   Before he told me that, I suspected that I was developing heart disease, and my anxiety made me feel much worse.  A few weeks before I visited the chiropractor, however, I made an effort to raise my spirits.  I actually envisioned lifting them from somewhere in my abdomen to the top of my head.  I noticed that I held myself more erect when I did that, that I met strangers’ eyes, that I felt more inclined to smile and engage with the people around me.  I still felt ill, but my anxiety became manageable.

Andrew Harvey, the author of “Secret Journey”, wrote about an insight he had about the filters through which we see reality.  He was walking in a wood near an ashram in Germany, and the gloomy weather made his depression more acute.  He thought about WWII and began to interpret recent encounters with the locals as sinister beginning moves in a nightmare conspiracy.  He saw the world around him as a seed bed for violence, repression, and discrimination.  Then something shifted inside him.  Perhaps a shaft of light broke through and illuminated the snow on the ground.  Perhaps a deer poked its head out from behind a thicket.  In any case, he began to recall the sweetness of German children playing in the village, the smile a shopkeeper gave him when he came in to make a purchase, the kindness of a neighbor helping a neighbor carrying in groceries.  He realized that the world hadn’t changed from evil to good in the blink of an eye.  He realized that only his perceptions had changed.


The Living Nativity Starring Dominic the Donkey

Shepherds (grade school boys and girls wearing  bathrobes) sat by a smoking brazier.  Tethered goats ate at the hay scattered in front of the Winter Park Presbyterian education building, and Dominic the Donkey stood within a separate enclosure with his head down.  Joseph and Mary entered the lot and took their place beside stacked hay bales and a manger.  Mary wore a pregnancy pillow under her robes, and walked with the confident stride of a woman who was not about to give birth.  Dominic began to pace as if impatient for the impending delivery.  Mary and Joseph disappeared for several minutes, and Christmas carols played over a loud speaker.  Dominic paced.

Mary and Joseph reappeared, and Mary carried a swaddled baby doll which she placed in the manger.  Angels entered from the right and stood before spotlights shining up at them from the ground.  The shepherds turned away from their brazier to absentmindedly study the supernatural beings, and then wandered over to Mary, Joseph, and baby doll Jesus.  Dominic brayed.  The loud speakers drowned him out with more carols, and the shepherds lost interest in their savior and wandered back to their tethered goats.  The wise men entered from the left and briefly confabbed with King Herod.  They then wound in a snake like path over and around the lot, in and out of the “flock” of goats, and timed their arrival at Jesus’ feet with the last falling notes of “We Three Kings”.  Dominic brayed once more.

More hymns played on the speakers; more pre-recorded passages from Luke were read.  Dominic the Donkey ignored Scripture, lay on his back and squirmed from side to side to relieve an itch.  The kings eventually departed.  Mary, Joseph and baby doll exited, and the junior pastor came out of the shadows.  Dominic brayed loud and long as Pastor Emily began to speak.  She paused and introduced her heckler with amused forbearance.  She then invited the children to pet the goats, warned them that Dominic could be temperamental, and advised parents to keep their toddlers away from the flames of the brazier.  She then invited all to come inside for cookies, drinks and more carols, and told them that all were welcome to find a home for worship at W.P.P.C.

Judy and I went inside and took refuge in the sanctuary.   The crowd of adults and rambunctious children in the fellowship hall drove us to find a quieter place to relax.  Candles on the altar and a Christmas tree to the right gave a warm glow to the nave.  Bright red poinsettias and a Christmas banner ( a sheep standing in a Christmas Star lit landscape) added accents to the front of the hall.  Judy and I sat near the back and meditated for several minutes.  I paged through a Bible in the pew where I sat, and I came upon a psalm that asked God how long the arrogant and wicked would be allowed to prosper.

Judy turned to me and smiled.  We held hands and felt the peace of Christmas.