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.

 

Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.

Lost: I Blame the Elves

Lots of things raise my blood pressure:  political news; financial uncertainty; computer glitches; and health concerns.  Sometimes I’m able to reason my way out of an anxious funk.  But misplacing something drives me crazy.  I’m plagued by the feeling that my inability to manage my possessions is a sign that my life is about to descend into chaos.

When my children were little I could blame an unexplained disappearance on them, but now that they’re grown and gone I have two options:  elves or the onset of dementia.  I choose elves.

A friend of mine named Jean had a third option.  She blamed the disappearance of a ring on a ghost.  Her Victorian house was haunted by a friendly spirit who once, according to Jean, brought her a cup of tea when she was in bed with a high fever.  Jean eventually decided to move to a new house and asked the ghost to come along with her.  He shook his spectral head and told her that he couldn’t leave the premises.  On the morning Jean left she found a ring in the middle of the floor of a room she had emptied the day before.  She understood, by telepathic means, that the ghost had taken it several months back as he admired the gemstone’s beauty.  He apologized, and she forgave his thievery.

One of my incidents usually begins with a search for an object in its last recalled location.  For example, I look for a pocket knife on my dresser where I’m sure I’ve left it–not there.  I look in the next obvious location and note my growing panic as the knife remains perversely absent.  I expand the circle of my search outward until I’m pawing through tool boxes, opening drawers in cupboards seldom used, looking under sofa cushions where I’ve not sat in months.

I eventually rummage through shoes on the floor beneath the dresser, the pockets of pants in the laundry, the dust bunnies under my bed, but discover the knife hidden underneath a piggy bank on top of the dresser where I first made my search.  I had neglected to take into account the elfish predilection for shifting things slightly to one side.

Today I went on an expedition to find some credit cards.  We had received a new batch just before my wife and I left on a mini-vacation, and I had forgotten when we returned to mail cards to my son and daughter.  My wife told me that my son had asked after his, and I remembered putting them on the desk in the living room.  I made quick searches through bank statements and bills, but couldn’t find them.  My wife noticed the strained look on my face as I redoubled my efforts and began to look in progressively absurd locations.  She said, “We’ll find them.  Don’t worry.”  I replied, “Will we?  I’ve looked in all the places I can think of, and they’re gone.  I’m running out of ideas about where to look!”  My wife looked at me with a mixture of exasperation and pity, and offered no more comfort.  “Those goddamn elves are ruining my marriage,” I thought.

I took Judy to an appointment a few minutes later, and when we returned I made another search of a desk drawer where I believed the cards had been left.  I found the them tucked in an envelope with an auto insurance bill.  They hadn’t been there 90 minutes ago.  Fucking elves.

I sighed in relief.  I bolstered my self-confidence by telling myself that I had defeated my tormentors once more.  The sheer power of my desperation had forced them to return the cards to the desk drawer while we were gone.

The jewel case for my Lemonheads’ CD, “It’s a Shame About Ray”, is next on the agenda.  I’ve turned my studio upside down on at least three occasions, but haven’t yet summoned the eye bulging intensity necessary to intimidate the elves.  But there’s always tomorrow.  I’ll recall all the things I’ve permanently lost over the years and work myself into a monumental froth.

 

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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