Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Body in Question

      The drawing appears to be an intimate portrait of my father in the shower. Above the image is the logo of the Lathrop Insurance Agency of Westerly, Rhode Island, which would put us in Watch Hill for a few weeks in the summer of 1961. I remember nothing of Watch Hill beyond the improbable episode of being bitten by a pelican in some sort of local petting zoo, but the drawing is memorable for the anguish it provoked and significant because my father actually framed it and had it hanging in his bathroom until the day he died. I can no longer remember whether I or my brother drew the portrait. Over the years I've managed to convince myself that my brother did it, but in all probability it was my work, as I was the “artistic” one, even then. 

   Some time after we returned to New York that summer this snippet turned up and my father asked which of us had made it. Dad's delivery could often seem a bit forbidding – a trait I admit to having inherited – and a perfectly simple question could easily become fraught with dark implication by its tone alone. Thus, the two of us glanced briefly at one another and I waited, as I always did, for my brother to speak first. Being older and therefor wiser, and given that the image in question focused on my father's crotch, my brother quite appropriately denied having anything to do with it. Sensing trouble and taking my cue from him, I, too, demurred. At this we were led upstairs to my father's study, made to sit side by side on a low, embroidered prayer-bench and told that we would remain there under incessant interrogation until one of us told the truth. This was the incipient moment from which my father developed his theory that the lie superseded the act, a theory we would reject time and time again in ensuing years, opting always for the lie first and the grim truth as a last resort. On this sad afternoon we were steadfast; neither gave an inch as the hours crept by, despite our mother's frequent, sobbing transits through the room an my own wet pants. This ordeal, of course, resolved and, though I've blocked the facts of it, I suspect my brother may have confessed – rightly or wrongly – in order to end the stand-off and proceed to the whipping.

   In my work as a house painter my partners and I are often compelled to move furniture around. I'm rarely shocked anymore by what these maneuvers turn up, but you'd think people might make an effort to inventory their intimacies prior to our arrival in order to avoid that sinking feeling upon realizing they'd left the spicy little devil-suit under the California King. I've come upon at least two of these in my career: one complete with horns, pitch-fork and a label that read “Fredrick's of Hollywood”. Before the computer age brought erotica into every household I'd routinely discover stacks of Playgirl and Penthouse amidst the dust-bunnies and detritus and these discoveries couldn't help but change the way we regarded our clients.
On one occasion, forced to remove the drawers from an impossibly heavy bureau, we discovered each drawer packed with thousands of erotic, Polaroid selfies. So prodigious a cache, in fact, that one was forced not only to reflect on one's own paltry sex-life, but to wonder where on earth these people found the time and energy to create such a massive trove. Perhaps they were only pausing, briefly and breathlessly, to have their apartment painted; although, it must be said, very little painting got done that afternoon.

Yesterday Harper cornered a porcupine in the hedgerow along the cove. I was fussing with something on the mower and noticed the dog fixated on a spot in the gorse. I figured it was a tennis ball somehow out of his reach and eventually went over to fetch it for him. There, wedged between bayberry and rugosa and only a few inches from Harper's muzzle was the sleek, salt and pepper back of a young hedgehog. Curled up like that and facing away from Harper, she was about the size of a soccer ball, presenting her back and protecting her tender bits. Grabbing his collar, I dragged the dog back to the house and picked up a shovel, the first thing that came to hand on my way back down the hill. I prodded at the poor thing, not at all sure what I was going to do, what I was capable of doing. She turned in her logy, sleepy way to face me and our eyes met. She had beautifully soft, brown, Beatrix Potter eyes. And there we stood, sharing an intimacy that must only exist between the executioner and the condemned while, from behind me, Suzanne gently intoned, “You're only protecting your dogs. You're only protecting your dogs....”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

High Infidelity


In the first seasons of “Boardwalk Empire”, my Grandfather, Walter Edge, then a Senator from New Jersey, is often depicted enjoying the attentions of Atlantic City showgirls and strumpets as payment for favors he may or may not have bestowed on Boss Nucky Thompson. In his autobiography, Governor Edge, not surprisingly makes no mention of Boss Thompson or showgirls, although there is some question about receiving a smooch and hair-tousle from Josephine Baker some years later in Paris. 

There's a possibility he was between wives as Prohibition dawned, and, as my Grandmother was some twenty-eight years his junior, we'd like to think he wouldn't have required the company of showgirls, strumpets or other men’s wives. In any event, until modern media brought it to our attention, any indiscretions Governor Edge may have indulged in under the Boardwalk had been kept under wraps.

From the infamous “wide stance” to shenanigans on the Argentinean Appalachian Trail, much has been revealed in recent years concerning the infidelities of our most prominent and powerful politicians. Of course, this has been going on since the dawn of modern politics when Warren Harding was discovered pleasuring Nan Britton in a White House coat closet; we’ve just abandoned any sense of propriety that might have helped protect the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, F D R, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller from the sort of public disgrace and humiliation we've all come to expect and relish from the current crop of miscreants. With our global indulgence in the endless post-mortem of John F. Kennedy’s life, that reticence has gradually unraveled and vanished. Of the many trappings of power and entitlement that flow from these lofty positions, it seems that the compulsion and ability to attract paramours in the total absence of any physically attractive attributes is irresistible. Poor Jimmy Carter got busted just for thinking about it. And then, of course, there's Anthony Weiner, the man who embellished on Jimmy Carter's imaginary infidelity by bringing his own virtual perfidy into the computer age.

It was our privilege some years ago to attend a wedding reception at the Governor's Mansion in Princeton hosted by the young and attractive executive couple, Governor and Mrs. James McGreevey. Shaking hands with them over a spot of small talk in the receiving line, one could scarcely imagine the spectacular humiliation awaiting this rising star. There's something even more torrid, salacious and compelling when the protagonist not only switches partners but genders as well. Whereas a high-powered pol might have survived a few affairs back in The Day – boys will be boys, after all - this extra little frisson, the “outing” of the likes of Larry Craig, Mark Foley and McGreevey, pretty well drives a stake through the heart of any old whore-dog’s future. The further to the Right these transgressors are, the closer to the Scriptures they purport to cleave, the more fascinating their infidelities, which shouldn’t surprise us given the behavior of their counterparts in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

   How Bill Clinton not only survived his own blush-worthy humiliation but seems to have risen anew as an elder statesman and possible asset and councilor to the next President may take years to sort out. Why women in power haven’t felt the need to stray and strut their stuff – or at least haven’t been caught at it yet – is also an open question. From Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir to Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachman, the possibilities are endless! Maybe having a powerful and entitled woman in the White House will put a temporary end to such philandering, at least at the executive level. It's hard to imagine Hillary buns up kneeling in the coat closet with some young page but, then again, it's just as hard to picture the likes of Warren Harding, Dwight Eisenhower or Lyndon Johnson in there, either!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Midlife Crisis

 In the early Spring of 1967 my father returned from a business trip to San Francisco sporting a lavender Nehru jacket, wide-stripe, brown on beige elephant bells and improbably pointy, jet-black Beatle-boots. A massive, golden Peace symbol hung from the heavy rope of cheap beads around his neck and what appeared to be ruffled cuffs protruded from his sleeves, accentuating an array of mood rings that might have shamed Liberace. 
   Dad had been out west for several weeks helping the State of California set up an Arts Council - a job which necessitated rubbing elbows with artists and entertainers – and had spent an evening at the Fillmore Auditorium in the company of Bill Graham to see Wildflower, an entirely forgotten group of the moment that neither of us had ever heard of. He brought us each a copy of  Wildflower's debut album, which we viewed with contempt and never bothered to play.

   Had my brother and I been aware of the concept of the “midlife crisis”, we might have recognized the onset of this condition and regarded Dad's sudden transformation more charitably, but, to a pair of aspiring hippies itching to let their hair grow over their oxford collars, the old man's new ensemble was ridiculous and vaguely threatening. Even before the Summer of Love we knew there was something in the air and Dad's impending embrace of our nascent culture was simply not acceptable. Nonetheless, an  aura of permissiveness and experimentation accompanied Dad's transformation: he bought a massive wok and took up ethnic cuisine, invited other grown-ups in bell bottoms to parties where they listened to Wildflower and played Twister, and generally ignored my brother and me as we stumbled and poked our way around the periphery of the Age of Aquarius.

   The real crises may have arisen the following year when Dad just as suddenly gave up exotic food and spices – including ginger and soy sauce - because, according to my mother, they reminded him of Hippies. He derided  Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy, the candidates of his Minnesota roots, as “pantywaists” and announced his intention to vote for Richard Nixon. He bought a fifty gallon drum of Paraquat and began spraying. He put Lester Lanin and Percy Faith back on the hi-fi and generally ignored my brother and me as we contemplated marching on Washington and Wall Street.

   Given the date of death for each of my parents – if we go strictly by the numbers here – my own midlife crisis must have occurred in 1992, when I was 37. After years of grim solitude and enforced bachelorhood I quite suddenly met and married my wife, Suzanne, acquiring in one fell swoop an instant family in the form of our daughter, Zinzi and a magnificent two-year-old golden retriever named Ryster. I sold the cream-puff, 1964 Mercury Comet, bought a house and started worrying about a college fund. I created a feeble resume and applied for a job in the admissions department of the Portland School of Art, for which I submitted to an equally feeble and ultimately fruitless interview. We've been married, for better or worse, ever since.

   And that's it. No torrid affairs, no Lamborghini, no walk on the wild side. No cerise Mohawk, nose ring or tiny tattoo. No conversion to Bookmanism or Judaism. No skinny jeans, no beret, not even a spaniel; we've had four more goldens since Ryster. Of course, what with the much touted longevity available through modern medicine, the best may be yet to come and it's remotely possible that I haven't reached mid life yet. I'll try to keep you posted, but I think you'll know it when you see it.....

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bread in The Bone

   My mother was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her life in a sort of comfortable and casual denial. She displayed little in the way of entitlement or fancy, preferred worn out corduroys and moth-eaten sweaters to haute couture and was happier with the menagerie of orphaned animals in her life than most of the people she may have had to endure over cocktails or caviar. She enjoyed a bohemian education in Greenwich Village and Paris, subsidized by her father, of course, and became a remarkably fine painter despite that privilege.
   My father was born with the frigid, bitter spoon of rust-flecked iron from the shores of Lake Superior in his mouth. He grew through his Depression-era adolescence nurturing an overwhelming ambition to leave Duluth and surround himself with as much of the Main Line, Newport and Watch Hill hoi-polloi as he could possibly muster, the fancier the better. If his first improbable success was getting a full scholarship to Princeton; his crowning achievement was marrying the Governor's daughter.
    To the extent that we become our parents – and most of us reach a point where, despite our best efforts, we accept this as a fait accompli, – then it would be nice to think we absorb not just the bad or tiresome traits of our fathers or mothers but a more moderate stew that might include the sweet stuff as well. By the time the four of us came along, it's safe to say that some of the silver-plate had worn off the spoons in our own mouths, leaving beneath the wooden kitchen spoon, redolent of all the fabulous dishes of Rome and Paris, the gardens, orchards and vineyards of Provence and some pretty good guidance in the examples of our parents on how to go forward.

   While my brother and I hauled rocks out of the fields for twenty-five cents an hour to satisfy some God-forsaken vision of my father's we could not possibly imagine, my mother, followed by a passel of devoted livestock, would wire old bottles over the buds of fruit trees in the hope that the fruit would ripen inside. Dad planted orchards of peaches and pears, Mom pressed cider, made cheese, learned to use a scythe and took up the cello. Dad would eventually turn these fields, through dint of dark rage, Fitzcarraldian determination and back-breaking labor, into fifty or sixty acres of fine vineyard. Mom would cut down the bottles with lush pears inside and fill them with brandy made from a pressure cooker still and vats of sticky, pear mash.

  In the Autumn I'd take a group of friends up from the City to help with the grape harvest. We'd spread out in the rows early Saturday morning armed with snips and bushel baskets, methodically clipping solid, compact, heavy bunches of grapes the size of footballs and lowering them gently into the baskets amid the buzzing of thousands of harmless, drunken fruit wasps. We'd lug the stained and sticky baskets out to the head of the rows where Dad would drive the tractor up and down the lanes collecting them. Most of that variety might be picked by noon and we'd all trudge, exhausted and sore, down to the house for a massive luncheon of ham and quiches and cannelloni and garden salads and trout and cheeses and fresh, french bread and pear tarts and apple pies and gallons and gallons of cider, wine and potent Poire. All grown and raised and baked and fashioned, somehow, by my parents. This was always a mind-blowing experience for my city-mouse friends who, by four o'clock, would be draped over couches and chairs and sunny bits of lawn, full to the brim and fast asleep.

   This morning I made hot sauce out of the cherry and Anaheim peppers from our garden. I could have just gone up the hill and bought some hot sauce - probably better hot sauce -  if I'd really needed hot sauce. Which I don't. I've got a pear tree out there, too, which I keep forgetting to wire up with bottles in the spring because I'm too busy hauling rocks out of the garden or turning the hard, thawing soil in the beds. I've got jugs of raspberry and tarragon vinegars in the cupboard because I am genetically programmed to make these things every year. Somewhere I think I may have that still. I've got a brother who makes cheese, he can't help himself, and all four of us would almost rather cook than eat. In one way or another we have all been pursuing this thing, this stew, this style all our lives and have our parents - for better or worse – to thank for it. God only knows where they found the time for all of this and all of us.