Climb the Stairs

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 4×2′

I’m nearly done working on a painting called, “Climb the Stairs”. An unpleasant event inspired the layered images. As I glaze, scumble and brush toward completion, uninvited emotions come up from behind, tap me on the shoulder and say “hi”. Pain and anxiety intrude most frequently. Anger, associated bad memories and bitterness pile on and compound my difficulties.

I thought that working through this subject would serve as an exorcism, that the sting would diminish as I came to terms with my history. I realize now that this memory is a channel to more trouble. I’ve also concluded that there’s not much chance of off-loading. This negative crud has been hard-wired into the core.

But better things have come to me over the years. They’ve too have made indelible impressions. I’ve had a fortunate life for the most part and am grateful. Perhaps I’ll focus on good memories in subsequent paintings. The ugliness will always be there, but I don’t have to encourage it to take over. It’s only one small part of the picture.

Homecoming

Perhaps I’ll find balance one day and come to a peaceful reconciliation with my life in its entirety. But the next painting will have to have at least one puppy. And some butterflies. Can’t rule out flowers.

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Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Trouble in Paradise

Many remember the good times in a relationship, the wonderful moments when two people make a connection and feel less lonely, the intoxication when love and desire begin to undermine reason, the comradeship of finding someone with whom you can share thoughts, feelings and ideas. I remember many of the these initial rush-of-love moments, but since they occurred more than thirty years ago they’ve lost some of their vibrancy.

But I can clearly recall those moments when a relationship suddenly and unexpectedly imploded, and I’ve never been able to forget the slow burn-outs when a love affair took much too long to turn to ash and blow away. A sudden rejection turned out to be a more merciful way of ending things, much more preferable to a prolonged period of being bound to someone whom you no longer really love and who you know doesn’t love you.

I ended two or three relationships, usually in an indirect manner. I would call less frequently or propose fewer dates when I began to feel the energy and good will between me and a lover begin to die. At other times I was on the receiving end of an abrupt dismissal, or was left dangling for a long time until the obvious conclusion occurred to me that I had been dumped. What went around came around, but I recall feeling devastated and unfairly treated when I was the one who was cast away. I suffered from the doubt that I was unworthy of being loved, and sometimes took three or four months to patch my tattered ego back together after a rejection. I seldom took into account that my actions might affect others in the same way.

The most devastating dump happened to me when I was a freshman at the University of Dayton. I met a girl named Madonna at a mixer for incoming scholarship recipients. She had short, blond hair, brown eyes, and was very intelligent. I noticed her when I walked into the room, but she made the initial approach and she peppered me with questions. We didn’t exchange telephone numbers, but I assumed we would meet again as we were both enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. I saw her a few days later. She was wandering around erratically on the lawn of the Roesch Library while squinting down at the ground. I was intrigued by her eccentric behavior, and when I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was studying grasshoppers. We began talking once more, and I eventually asked her out. She told me in a vague, offhand way that she had a boyfriend named Bob at Kent State, but didn’t hesitate to accept my offer.

We both were commuter students and lived at home with our parents. When I arrived at her address off of North Main for our first date she served me a beer in a frosted mug and asked if I smoked. I thought she meant tobacco (I was very green), but was brought up to speed when she pulled a joint out of a small, tin box. We smoked it and then drove to a theater showing avant garde animated movies. The weed, the surreal cartoons and the intoxication of her company made the evening float by like an odd but enjoyable dream.

I remained in a state of enchantment for about two months. I fell madly in love with her and forgot that Kent State Bob existed. Madonna was a playful lover, a good companion and a person who appeared to have a strong sense of morality. She had attended Chaminade-Julienne, a Catholic high school in downtown Dayton, took her Catholicism much more seriously than I did, and was concerned about my lack of faith. Of course spiritual matters weren’t a matter of pressing concern when we were rolling around on a sofa in her parents’ rec room, or steaming up the windows of her car.

We decided to go to the homecoming dance, and I made reservations at an Italian restaurant near her home. I could tell that something was wrong when I arrived to pick her up. She wasn’t hostile, but she didn’t smile at me or look me in the eye. She and her Mom fussed with her dress for several minutes, and then we drove in silence to Antonio’s. She spent the meal pushing her meatballs around her plate and spoke to me with difficulty. The easy flow of conversation that we usually shared had dried up, and I wondered what I had done. She waited until I paid the bill and we were sitting in my car in the restaurant parking lot to unburden herself.

She told me that her conscience was bothering her about cheating on Kent State Bob, and that she would have to find some way to choose between him and me. I understood, though nothing was said directly to me, that Bob was unaware that I was his rival. She then suggested that I take her home as she had ruined the evening. I felt sorry for her when she began to cry and tried to jolly her into a better mood. I talked her into going to the dance.

Madonna began to drink heavily almost as soon as we arrived. She mixed beer, wine and booze, and started to look ill after we had been there for about an hour. I drove her home. She told me as we sat parked in her parents’ driveway that she was going to be sick, but wanted me to come inside anyway. I held her hair back as she vomited into her bathroom sink, and then helped her get into bed. I believe that I lovingly tucked her in.

The next two months gradually became more and more hellish for me. I could tell that her affections were washing away from me, but nothing I did stemmed the outflow of the tide. As I grew more desperate to hold onto her my jumpy and sometimes irritable behavior did nothing to support my cause. I couldn’t stand the feeling that everything I did and said had a bearing on her decision, and felt angry that Kent State Bob wasn’t suffering through similar trials. The contest was unfair.

One day she told me out of the blue that I was like a pretty dress. That sounded insulting and I asked her what she meant. She explained that I was like a pretty dress in store window that she wanted to buy, but found the price too costly. She thought that one day the rough spots in my character would smooth out, but she couldn’t be sure. I was an attractive bet, but too risky. When she told me this she acted as if she were doing me a kindness.

I should have gathered up what was left of my dignity and walked away at that moment. She was telling me in her oblique way that it was over. It didn’t occur to me that I could have told her that she was like a fickle princess in a fairy tale who dangled her affection before her suitors like a prize that had to be won. Instead I hung on.

I dreaded the break up call that I knew was coming, and wasn’t surprised when she finally got up her nerve and dialed my number. But I was devastated nonetheless. Nothing prepared me for the hollow feeling in my chest that suddenly appeared when she hung up. My heart was gone and was replaced by an amorphous blob of numbness. At times the numbness gave way to a strange, throbbing sensation that was quite painful. I’ve experienced worse moments since then, of course, but at the age of 18 it was impossible for me to know that the loss I felt was not all that great. I had to learn to judge the scale of events by going through much harsher times.

No other break up ever affected me as strongly, and I guess I could thank her for that. She toughened me up. I could also thank her for teaching me to stick up for myself in a relationship, and that mutual respect is the ground of anything worthwhile that can be shared by two people. And I could thank her for teaching me to never test the love of those closest to me. But I don’t really want to.

Nuns

I went to Meadowlawn Elementary School in Kettering, Ohio for kindergarten and first grade.  I transferred to Ascension, a Catholic parochial school, and attended from second to eighth grade.  I encountered my first nun in third grade.  She was dressed head to toe in a black habit and wore squared off, black, leather shoes.  She was a slightly stooped, fairly deaf, ancient woman.  I forget her name, but her order renamed their sisters with a masculine first name and a feminine second name when the novitiates took their final vows.  Let’s say that her name was Sister Thomas Marie.

She was a good teacher, fair and not too insanely strict, but had an unfortunate talent for turning arithmetic into  processes as intricate as filling out  tax forms.  I think that long division required at least ten steps.  She was patient about most things, but was strangely vigilant in restricting the time we spent in the restroom.  Twice a day we were herded en masse down the hall  to relieve our bladders.  She waited outside for us to finish, but would open the door and extend her skeletal arm inside if she thought we were taking too long.  She held a wooden, spring powered device in her gnarled fingers, and she would click it at us while calling out, “Hurry up, boys!”  in her high pitched, wavering voice. She may be the reason why I have difficulty peeing in public bathrooms.

My second nun was my fifth grade teacher, Sister Joseph Marie.  Her face was long and horsey, but she had a lovely spirit.  She laughed easily and angered slowly, and won us over with her kindness and consideration.  Even the hard cases who usually delighted in bedeviling our teachers left her alone.  She was one of the few priests or nuns that I met who gave the impression that a vocation in the Catholic church led to a life of  joyful service.  My memories of her might be biased, however.  At that time I was sometimes told at home and on the playground  that I was a weird kid.  She was the first teacher who appeared to genuinely like me, and was the first to understand and appreciate my sense of humor.

In seventh grade I had an ex-nun (they count–they never really leave an order like ex-Marines remain Marines for life) named Miss Engler.  She was an unhappy woman who addressed us like an aristocrat giving orders to her least favored serfs.  We didn’t merit her respect.  She never bothered to learn our names, but would address a girl as “Missy” and a boy as “Bud”. She would look down her long nose at us as if inspecting something offensive: our entry into adolescence appeared to disturb her.  She would praise the sweetness of the children in the lower grades, and  let us know  that we had fallen a long way from that state of innocence. She would tell us that we stunk, and that the groin was “the dirtiest part of the body.”  She recommended that we wash that area frequently.  She was especially vigilant about policing the skirt length of the girls.  Their uniforms were cut so that they fell a few inches below the knee when they stood.  When they sat down their hems were not supposed to rise more than an inch or so above the top edge of their kneecaps.  Miss Engler frequently interrupted her lectures to point and bark  the following at some unfortunate girl seated near the front: “Pull your skirt down, Missy!” I suppose she believed that when a thirteen year old revealed a few square inches of lower thigh it was a sign that the young Jezebel was headed for a career in the sex trade.

One day Miss Engler brought in a kitten in a cardboard box lined with a soft blanket.  She was terribly fond of her pet and spoke to it with kindness and affection.  We didn’t know that she was capable of that and were even more surprised when her goodwill spilled over onto us.  We started to fawn over the kitten in hopes of extending our period of good grace.  Our plan worked for about two or three days, but someone finally said something so saccharine that her suspicions were aroused.  She realized in a moment that we had been playing her, and her hostility toward us returned with renewed vigor.  The kitten was seen no more.

In eighth grade we came under the strange domination of Sister Mary Margaret.  She was fairly twisted even for a nun, and had a lot of experience in using a distorted version of Catholic doctrine to manipulate us and to attempt to inflict mental damage.  If we were in the slightest way disobedient as a class she would tell us the next day that she had spent the night praying for our souls. Whispering in class apparently put us at the brink of the fiery pits of Hell. If students did not intend after graduating from Ascension to go on to Carroll, the Catholic high school that charged a tuition comparable to a public college, she would take them aside one by one and assure each that their “soul would be lost.”  (She performed this routine on me, and when I told her that my father couldn’t afford to send me she coldly ordered me to get a job.)

Her most vivid moment came when she discovered that an unknown girl (the letters were rounded in a feminine manner) had written “Fuck you Nun!” in the back of a vocabulary book.   She held us back at the end of the first day of interrogation and threatened to keep us from riding our buses home if we didn’t give up the perpetrator.  She relented at the very last minute, probably fearing the wrath of twenty-five angry parents, and we had to run to catch our buses.  She spent days afterword grilling us to find out who the culprit was. When threats and intimidation didn’t work she turned to psychological warfare.  She told us every once in a while over a period of a month that whoever had written such a horrible thing in a Catholic school textbook (she would pause dramatically before delivering the punch line) was disturbed and in need of treatment.  She said that she wanted to help that poor individual recover their mental health and to come back into the good graces of the church. She was a pretty good actor when she said this, and any fool who didn’t know her better might believe that she felt actual concern.

The girl who had “desecrated” the vocabulary book finally broke down and confessed to Sister in the hallway outside our classroom one afternoon.  I didn’t hear the confession but witnessed the reaction.  Sister Mary Margaret dug her fingernails into the girl’s shoulders and shook her so hard that her head whipped back and forth.  I forget what the nun snarled at her, but it had nothing to do with love and concern.

The Catholic church and I parted ways a few years later. I drifted away as Sister predicted when I was no longer under the daily influence of the church and was freer to think my own thoughts about matters of faith.  I don’t regret leaving, and when any stray doubts flutter through my brains I simply recall the sight of Sister Mary Margaret’s face as she attacked a fourteen year old girl.  Beet red and distorted into a grotesque mask of spite and hatred, it reminded me more of the Bride of Frankenstein than the Bride of Christ.

Gardening in Florida

I’m not much of a gardener, though I was able to raise a decent crop of green beans when we lived in Pennsylvania. Japanese beetles and weeds threatened my plants from time to time up there, and rabbits often nibbled shoots down to the ground, but their depredations seemed to be  reasonable. They ate and I ate.
Now that I live in central Florida there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason when trying to grow vegetables. Plants sicken and die at random moments; swarms of insects chew holes in leaves and any tender, young vegetable that shows an inclination to ripen; herbs succumb to fungi or wilt in the summer heat.  The only flora that seem impervious to the harsh environment are the vines that claw and wriggle their way out of the drainage canal abutting my back yard.  They cross any stretch of land that hasn’t felt their persistent, grasping touch and ensnare anything stationary in their path such as fence posts, trees, bromeliads, and sleeping dogs.  The only thing that temporarily slows their progress is a hard freeze.
The other problem with trying to intentionally grow flowers and vegetables here is that all sorts of weedy plants volunteer to grow right where they are least wanted. Bidens and ferns jump out of the ground and attempt take over any cultivated plot. Trees pop up along the edge of fences and grow at amazing rates. The laurel cherry and laurel oak are examples of trees that grow with reckless exuberance, but they pay for their imprudence by twisting and splitting near their bases just when they gain enough height to provide decent shade. Limbs fall and whole trees can come crashing down during a wind or rain storm. Hurricanes swing by every five or ten years, and when they come near I stare at the weather reports on my television and fear not only the onslaught of high winds and horizontal, slashing rain, but also harbor suspicious thoughts about every tree in my yard that has grown higher than the roof line of our one story house.
Two weeks ago I cut down two laurel cherry trees that had stealthily grown to twenty feet tall in the span of 3 or four years. They thought I wasn’t looking, but I had my eye on them for a couple months. As I wiped sweat from my eyes and scratched at a few mosquito bites on my calves, I reflected on a wise saying that an older, native resident told me years ago. He said that in Florida the goal wasn’t to plant things. The goal instead was to cut things down before they swallowed up your house and yard.
An idea occurred to me as I swung an axe and bundled  branches: perhaps misdirection could be used to fool the relentless green onslaught. What if I lovingly cleared an area of my yard, made it weed, vine and tree free, and lined up pots of defenseless  plants in the center of the plot?  What if I  ‘innocently’ placed stakes and string,  a hoe and a rake nearby as additional lures? In the meantime, while Mother Nature or the angry spirit of Osceola waited to spring upon my helpless square of turned earth, I could sneak a few plants into areas only partially overgrown and run to riot. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my carefully prepared garden would be attacked with full vigor while my little, partially hidden plants might be overlooked and spared. They would then have time to grow deeper roots and develop some resistance to aphids, giant grasshoppers, and hairy caterpillars.
But right after I finished cutting up the laurel cherries I spotted a third tree tucked behind and between a flowering bush and a viburnum tree that had long since exceeded its rightful state as a viburnum shrub. The partially hidden laurel cherry had slender, brittle branches  that had begun to curve toward my roof line. I realized that it might take a day to chop it down and cut it up, and that I’d better get to it soon. In another couple of weeks it might grow so large that I would have to call a tree company to remove it.
I saw that my plan to fool the Spirit of Florida Green was nothing but a silly diversionary tactic. General Custer must have tried to feint left and right when he realized he was surrounded at Little Big Horn. We all know how that ended.

A Sporting Life Part I

When I was a kid I went through cycles of growth and stasis. I would be thick and pudgy for a year, and then would stretch out and become tall and skinny for a year or two. I leaned hard toward skinniness for an extended period from the fifth grade till I turned 35.
My father had been bone thin as a boy and teenager, and only started to fill out when he got drafted into the army. He did not have to compete with four brothers and four sisters for his share of the food when he sat at an army mess hall table, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. I expected to follow in his footsteps, but instead took after my great uncles on the Kramer side of the family. My maternal grandmother’s brothers were tall and lean.
After one growth spurt in the seventh grade I had the distinct sensation that my bones were too long for my muscles, and sometimes felt unsteady when I walked or stood still. I would lurch to the left at random moments when walking in slow processions at church, and would slowly sway from side to side when waiting in a line. To make matters worse, I was slow footed and weak. My father had shown me how to play sports, and I had a decent amount of hand-eye coordination, but I couldn’t hold my own when fighting for a rebound, stealing a base, or tackling a runner.
My grade in my Catholic parochial school was short on talent, however, and I was a starter on the baseball and basketball teams in the seventh and eighth grades. We lost at a relentless pace in both sports, and we counted our near successes as triumphs once we got over the shock of coming close to victory.
I played shortstop and pitcher in the seventh grade. I could throw a ball hard but got wild when under duress. I remember trying to warm up on the mound before the first pitch of a game and feeling uncomfortable with the rubber, the ball, the sun in my eyes, the sweat rolling down my armpits. The jeers from the opposing team’s bench didn’t help. A batter settled into the box and I went into my wind up. As I continued my pitching motion I self-consciously attempted to synchronize the movements of my arms and legs, entertained a few doubts as I stepped into the throw about whether I had untangled myself properly, and hoped against hope as I released the ball that I would throw a strike past the batter.
Success happened every so often, but I rarely played in the groove, and hardly ever felt like I was performing in a comfortable, natural way. I liked being involved in every play when I pitched, but never got used to the pressure of the spotlight of attention that was focused on the pitching mound. A self-conscious pitcher is an unhappy pitcher.
I racked up a lot of losses in my two year career. One sticks out in memory…Nine of our players showed up for a game, so the line up was chosen according to guidelines based on desperate necessity. I believe my catcher had never played the position before. I was fairly wild the first three innings and gave up five runs. I decided in the fourth inning to shorten up my delivery and I started throwing strikes. I lost a lot of speed on my fastball, however, and the other team started to put the ball in play. Our fielders were good at daydreaming and defensively protecting themselves from flying projectiles such as baseballs, and thus were ineffective at playing defense. I did my best, but the bases began to fill up once again from errors and misplayed fly balls instead of walks.
Our first baseman, a red haired boy named Fernando, got beaned by a pitch in the second inning at his first at-bat. He probably got a concussion and should have been taken to an ER. He was woozy and had trouble standing, walking, and thinking clearly. This was the early 1970s and blows to the head tended to be taken nonchalantly as long as there was no blood present. Our coach realized that we would forfeit the game if we could only field eight players and came up with the following solution: when we were on the field Fernando was escorted to the right base line in the outfield and was told to sit down; Jack, our chunky second baseman who had a fielding range of one foot in any direction, was told to cover both second base and right field. The other team figured out the gaping flaw in that plan and started to push the ball to the right side of the diamond, and soon the game got out of control.
When the score reached 15-2 in the fifth inning the umpire, a man of decency, common sense and compassion, ended the game and we were finally put out of our misery. Our wounded first baseman went home still dazed and confused. We asked (whined to)our coach to take us out for ice cream in hopes of salving our bruised egos with frozen milk, chocolate and sugar, but he declined our request. A six pack in his refrigerator at home probably had his name on it, and he put his needs ahead of ours.
Fernando suffered no permanent consequences from the blow to his head, and went on to become a doctor. He didn’t know it at the time, but when the rubber-coated baseball bounced off his temple and sat him on the ground, he was taking one for the team. The score would have been nearly the same even if he had been able to duck, and his sacrifice made our suffering end an inning earlier.