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.

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Nice Guys Finish Last

One could get the impression that the world is not a kind place.  News reports provide constant evidence that the cruel, powerful, greedy and shameless are running the show.  As Leo Durocher once said, “Nice guys finish last.”

Today I read a news article (from a reputable source) that a large bank weaseled out of paying its fine for abetting the mortgage meltdown of 2008.  The Feds ordered the bank to pay 1 billion in cash out of a 5 billion levy.  The rest had to be doled out in debt forgiveness to homeowners in financial distress.  The bank figured out a way to shuffle accounts, canceled debts on properties it no longer owned, and saved 4 billion.  The article noted that this institution has holdings valued at 1/8 of the United States economy, implying that there was no financial need for this subterfuge.  The officers in charge felt no remorse for helping to cause the Great Recession and no need to make a pittance of amends.

Last Sunday our pastor at Winter Park Presbyterian preached on passages from 4 Philippians in which Paul advised his readers to be unafraid, to pray constantly to God and give thanks, and to focus on everything that is good, pure and just.  Pastor Micheli noted that this letter was the last that Paul wrote as he waited in a Roman prison to be executed. Micheli expanded on the passage and spoke of turning to God in troubled times as a source of comfort, as the one true rock on which we can stand.

I was struck by Paul’s faith and knew that I would never be able to match his courage.  I’d spend my last days and hours looking for an escape, making bargains with God to save my sorry butt, and sweating in full blown panic. As I sat in the pew I felt a longing for the peace and sureness of conviction of those who have a strong relationship with God.

I’ve rarely been able to sustain a life centered on spirituality, but now I see the necessity.  I might be deluding myself, but my wavering agnostic path no longer seems to be working.  And I’ve noticed that the company is a lot better when I hang around with people who believe in something more than blind self-interest.

Last place doesn’t look all that bad to me.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Tippy: Still Waiting for Revenge

Tippy swore at me and promised revenge.  He overheard me begging the night manager to leave early.  I had an allergic reaction to some chocolate I’d eaten that afternoon, and now my nose ran constantly.  I told Jerry, “Hey, I can’t even make a pizza without dripping into the sauce.”  Jerry smelled a rat, but couldn’t deny that I looked a mess with swollen eyes, a red nose and hives breaking out on my arms.  He gave me the nod.

Tippy crowded up to me as I punched out and said, “I’ll get you for this.”  He and I had been scheduled to close that night, and the kitchen at that moment resembled the third circle of hell.  A dinner rush raged on with no signs of stopping.  The July heat topped off the hot air radiating from the ovens and turned the kitchen into a 100 degree sweat shop.  Goo, cheese, and sausage scraps covered the pizza making stations, empty ingredient bags littered the floor, dunes of flour drifted up to the base of the dough mixer.  Tippy knew that my replacement wouldn’t work as hard as I would, and that he’d be responsible for putting a slimy disaster back into spic-and-span order.  I waved bye-bye as I danced out the back door.

The next time we worked together, Tippy told me how it took him two hours after the restaurant closed its doors to clean up the kitchen.  He glared at me and said, “I had to work with fucking Dave.”  I said, “Hey, I was really sick.  I wouldn’t have been much use.  Dave was a better deal.”  Tippy scowled at me.  We both knew that I was full of shit.  Dave took downers and worked in slow-mo, hid equipment he was supposed to clean, and took parking lot breaks in his El Camino to sip whiskey from a flask hidden under the driver’s seat.

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Tippy lived in a rathole wood frame house in East Dayton.  Both sides of my family had lived in his neighborhood back in the 1930s when it had been an enclave for German Catholic immigrants.  Now it was a Little Appalachia populated by the descendants of folks who had moved from Kentucky and Tennessee to work in factories during WWII.

Tippy was the first in his family to attend college.  I encouraged him to stay when he confessed that he wanted to drop out of the engineering program at the University of Dayton.  He felt overwhelmed by the material (“Everyone does,” I told him.) and from feeling like an outsider (“Hey, I’m the first generation in my family to go to college too,” I said.  “Those snobs aren’t any smarter than you.”).

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Tippy invited me, Debbie, Kenny and a cashier back to his place one night in November.  We drank beer, smoked and played UNO.  Folks got hungry around 2 a.m., and Tippy asked if anyone could cook.  I volunteered and raided his fridge.  I made omelets spiked with cheddar cheese, onions, peppers, and ham lunch meat.  I toasted bread and served up breakfast.  Tippy ate a mouthful of omelet, and said, “This actually tastes good.  You can come by any time and make me a meal.”  I asked him how much he paid.

Debby finished her third beer and began to talk about her mother.  Mom had lived a few streets over until someone murdered her–robbery gone bad.  Debbie knew who the man was, but couldn’t prove a thing.  But she’d get him.  One day.  He was going to pay.  But for now she had her little pumpkin, her baby boy, and nothing gave her more joy.  She pulled out her wallet and flipped it open to a sleeve of photos, and little Pumpkin looked up at us and laughed with an open mouth and crinkly eyes.

We played a few more rounds, finished the food and the beer, and headed home.

Tippy stopped me on his porch and said, “Don’t you still owe me for something?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,”  I answered.  “That Dave, he’s a great guy.”

Tippy scowled and said, “I’m gonna get you for that.”

 

 

Entourage: The Dangling Men

Nancy liked to dangle men, to entice them to come nearer and then hold them at a distance.  She often had two or three hooked at a time, but felt no guilt in trading one for another on a whim.  One time she had made a date to meet a new boyfriend at a restaurant.  An old beau saw her cross the parking lot and called her over.  Nancy made out with him in his car while her latest waited inside for her to make an appearance.  Latest became aware of her treachery.  But when he confronted her she just laughed and said, “Oh Brian, we’re not really dating, are we?”  Brian told her that he thought they were, and she laughed again at his foolishness.

She was attractive, intelligent, and had a good sense of humor.  Boys and men had made moves on her, had given her The Look, from the time she turned fifteen.   It must have been wearying to brave the constant attention and pressure, to sort through all the options.  She had to weigh the merits of her would-be suitors and hope that her scales had been properly calibrated.  And she must have wondered whether any of her gents really wanted her, the total sum of her, and not just the glittery package.  In the end she probably threw up her hands and decided to make love, sex, desire into a game.  She was the queen, and members of her entourage became her pawns.

Eventually she slipped and fell in love with an owner of a record store.  He was fifteen years older, however, and didn’t see any future in the relationship.  Steely Dan’s, “Hey Nineteen” played on the radio at that time, and the record man made it the theme of his argument when he broke up with her.

Nancy didn’t know how to deal with rejection.  All her training had been in holding men at bay, not at winning them back, and certainly not at mourning their loss.  She latched onto another record store owner, a mild-mannered stooge closer to her age, and began an affair.  She got pregnant, and they married although neither loved the other.  They named their son, Graham.

She called me up one day and spoke to me in her most charming, winsome manner.  “It’s been so long, Dennis.  I’m just dying to see you.”  Brian told me that he too had received an invitation a few days earlier.  Nancy was trying to reassemble her entourage and begin the game again.  She considered marriage and motherhood as slight handicaps that had been added to give her a deeper challenge.

I kept my distance, though I once gave in to curiosity and visited her and her toddler.  Graham was round faced, sandy-haired and good-natured.  He liked to gurgle and bang his spoon on the tray of his high chair.  Nancy seemed distantly amused by her baby and acted as if he were an odd creature who had somehow, through a series of madcap mishaps, become attached to her.  “Oh Graham,” she said, “You’re not really playing the drums, are you?”

 

 

Puerto Rico

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I’ve sat through four category 1 hurricanes.  Some folks can sleep during these (Hurricanes Irma and Charlie came early in the morning), but the sounds of debris hitting the side of my house and branches bouncing off my roof kept me wide awake and cringing.  The adrenaline rush kicked into gear again the next morning when I went outside and surveyed the aftermath.  We’ve been luck in that both storms shredded leaves off the trees surrounding my house and dropped branches, but we suffered no significant property damage.

It took several days using hand tools (and with the help of my wife and kids) to clear the yard after Charlie.  I was 45 at the time, and the heat exhausted but didn’t sicken me.  The ten days spent without power were mostly bearable even though the temperatures were in the low to mid 90s during the day.  I did have to be pulled aside by my wife on a few occasions to drink water and eat a bit of food as I began to show signs of heat exhaustion.  Cooking and refrigeration required a lot of extra effort (ice remained scarce until we found a Publix on a buried power line a few miles down the road; coffee water had to be heated up on a grill), and bathing meant cold showers.  And we were fairly lucky in that we had safe water.  Friends of ours scooped water flowing from a water main break to fill their toilet tanks.  Our neighborhood smelled like sewage in the mornings and evenings as the lifting station pumps were out of commission or running slowly on gasoline powered generators.

The power outage for Irma lasted five days, but I was in much worse shape from sleepless nights and heat exhaustion.  I can’t endure as well at 58, and it’s taken a few weeks to recover since the power was restored.  A friend of ours, who lost power for six days, ended up in an ER suffering from a fever and vertigo.  A nurse asked our friend if her power was out.  The hospital had been getting a steady stream of patients worn down by the heat.

So that sucked, but multiply it by 100, and you’ll get a glimpse of what it’s like in Puerto Rico.  We are being told by our president that “community effort” and an attitude of not “expecting to have everything done for them” are required for speedier recovery.  This being said about folks who have survived a category five hurricane, whose homes, if they still exist, have been badly damaged, who haven’t food, medicine, transportation, clean water and a functional sewage system.

Ever try pulling yourself up by your bootstraps while in shock, while suffering from hunger, thirst and extended heat exhaustion?  Ever try to do that without being able to purchase tools and equipment (ATMs shut down, debris-blocked roads, gas shortages, nowhere left to buy a two-by-four)?  Ever try to be effective while wondering whether your life will ever be the same again, while not being able to contact loved ones to let them know you’re alive, while wondering if your son’s asthma medicine (mother’s diabetes medicine, etc.) will hold out until new supplies arrive?

If you agree with the president’s pronouncements about Puerto Rico, then I wish you an equivalent fate to what the Puerto Ricans have suffered.  I’ll look forward to seeing how well you all perform under similar circumstances.  Please show us all the shining example of your determination and grit while standing in a shredded pile of belongings in front of your collapsed house.  I’m waiting to be inspired.

 

 

Beth Floats Downriver

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Beth said, “Look out–there’s a rock straight ahead!”  I leaned to look around her, saw the ripple in the water, and pushed my paddle to veer away.  Too late.  The side of the bow hit the submerged rock hard. Beth flew out of the canoe, and I rolled into the river.  I bobbed to the surface and saw her 10 feet away from me.  Actually, I saw her upright head facing me as it floated sideways downriver, a huge grin plastered on her face.

I grabbed a paddle floating nearby, righted the canoe and climbed in.  I went after Beth.  I reached out a hand, shifted my weight away from her to counterbalance the canoe, and pulled her aboard.  I circled back and found the other paddle caught in some reeds at the edge of the Little Miami.

We had set out an hour earlier from a canoe rental shop.  The owner warned us of pirates downstream who would call to us from the shore.  He said, “Make sure you see my sign on the dock before you pull in.  If you pick the wrong place, they’ll take the canoe and leave you to find your way back on your own.  And if you come back without my canoe, I’m gonna charge you for it.  Same thing if you lose a paddle.  Oh yeah, give me your driver’s license.  You can have it back when you return with everything safe and sound.”

I normally wouldn’t have agreed to such odd terms, but Beth looked eager to go.  I handed the man a twenty and my license.

Beth and I had gone to the same grade school and high school, but had never been friends.  During the spring semester at U.D. she sat a few rows over from me in a philosophy class.  She had green eyes, a willowy figure, and a big smile.  I wanted to get to know her better.

Our first date didn’t end well.  I gave her a little kiss as we said goodnight, and she stared daggers at me.  I had crossed one of the lines a Catholic girl still felt obliged to draw.  She surprised me when she agreed to go out again.  We got on much better, and I made sure that I maintained a foot or two of separation between us the whole night.  A week later she stopped me as I turned to leave, closed her eyes and leaned in for a kiss.

That summer we went to movies, family picnics, and jogged together in the evening.  She liked to slip her hand into my back pocket as we walked side by side.

Beth broke things off at the end of August.  We’d had a few arguments, nothing serious.  Her phone call shocked me:  I hadn’t seen any of the usual signs.  She didn’t criticize my clothes, my choice in movies, the crappiness of my rust bucket car.  I didn’t catch her coldly studying me.  My first girlfriend once sat silently and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye as I drove us to a restaurant, toting up my strengths and weaknesses.  The balance had been a negative number.

I had annoyed Beth on a few occasions, and she once accused me of not caring one bit about her feelings.  But she’d never put any distance between us.  I called her back and demanded an explanation for the sudden dump, and she concluded with the following:  “I know I’ll find someone I like better than you.  There are other fish in the sea.”

I saw her once after the fall semester began.  She and a girlfriend crossed the quad in front of me, and Beth stopped to say hello.  I grunted something back, deeply embarrassed and still smarting from her rejection.  She smiled ever so brightly, said a few kind words and drifted away…

No pirates accosted us on a warm day in July as we glided on the current and twisted our way through a few rapids.  We made it to the correct drop-off point without further mishaps, turned in the canoe and paddles and waited for the bus to come.  She and I were still drenched, and the other canoe renters stared at us as we rode back.  Beth and I didn’t feel embarrassed, but held hands and smiled.  It had been an excellent day.