Friday, January 30, 2015

Let's Talk Turkey


    If the roar of the Mig, screaming out of the Grecian sun wasn't alarming enough, our hitherto unflappable Turkish Captain, waving his arms and bellowing for my mother to come forward left little doubt that something may have gone seriously awry. The jet, so close that the pilot was plainly visible from the deck where we all stood - mouths agape, hearts pounding -  had come out of nowhere for a closer look at my brother, who'd gotten about two hundred yards into what he may have imagined would be a peaceful yet vigorous and beneficial row in the gulet's tender. As my mother had made the effort to pore over the Turkish – English phrase-book relentlessly since we'd left Bodrum some four days earlier, she was the one standing before the now apoplectic skipper as he dished up a torrent of spicy Turkish, gesticulating wildly toward the tiny row-boat afloat upon the placid Aegean as the fighter banked for another pass.

    Given that he'd chartered this massive, wooden sailboat and crew of three for a ten day cruise along the Turkish coast, my father felt entirely justified in telling the Captain where he ought to go.
This was evidently not the way the Captain saw things, and Dad's meticulously high-lighted routes, plotted over weeks of study on a series of obscure nautical charts, were summarily dismissed by the man at the helm. Where the Captain's English seemed to consist solely of the word “No”, Dad could muster little in Turkish beyond “Thank you very much”, and this was a phrase that clearly had no viable context in their heated discussions regarding ports of call. And so the role of interpreter fell to Mom, based on her fluency in French, her familiarity with the hopelessly inadequate phrase-book, and an overwhelming desire as a traveler to make every attempt, as a matter of basic courtesy, to converse in the local language.
Eventually these problems resolved with Mom laboriously transcribing my father's demands on one cocktail napkin and the Captain handing her his terse response on another. This entire translatory process might have taken my mother several hours to complete and, if we never had a clear picture of what she'd actually
said to the Captain, it hardly mattered as the event would have passed and the man had maintained his course throughout.

   After a few more passes, during which we all leaned over the rail waving our arms hysterically and exhorting my brother to “Row! Faster!!”, the fighter jet peeled off to the West, apparently satisfied that we meant no harm. In the aftermath of all that excitement, Dad approached the Captain and, with uncharacteristic humility, trotted out his one phrase. “Cok tesekkur ederim,” he said, presumably for not allowing my brother to be blown out of the water. On the night before we disembarked, while my father and the Captain arranged the bottles of Johnny Walker and cartons of Marlboros required for a smoother passage through Greek customs, Vesil, our timid “second mate”, indicated to Mom that he'd like to borrow the phrase-book. After several hours holed up in the crew's cramped and fetid quarters before the mast, Vesil came aft and proffered a smudged and wrinkled napkin upon which he had scrawled, “Tomorrow. Farewell day. Anxiety!” By which we think he meant to say that he'd miss us when we'd gone. Tender and heartfelt as this missive may have been, it gave us all the giggles and shed some light on what sort of blathering nonsense we'd been passing back and forth between my father and the Captain those last, long ten days.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Eschew On This


    “Catshit!” Suzanne shrieked from the other room. “Catshit! Catshit! Catshit!” I put my book down and studied the ceiling, pondering the possibilities. We hadn't owned a cat in years, although it's remotely possible one of the dogs had found a bit of almond roca out there somewhere and brought the festering morsel home to thaw out on the rug. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, marked my place in “The Bully Pulpit ” and prepared to deal with cat shit in the living room. “Yo!...  Don't you touch my Tom Brady!”, she cried out. Ah, I thought, reclining again, opening my book, football....She's watching football.

     Before I ever played real football – football with pads and cups and coaches and jerseys – I wanted, as most boys my age, to be a quarterback. In the Park, after school, I would toss long bomb after long bomb, in spirals so fine and tight they might have shamed Fibonacci. 

   On my first day of High School one of the older boys approached me and said, “You play football, right? You're going out for football, right?” You bet I am, I thought, puffing up the chest a bit, basking in the glow of the older boy's approval. The coach took one look at me and made me a lineman. I never touched a football. The cup hurt. The pads hurt. The helmet hurt. The coaches inflicted additional pain with evident pleasure. Boys I'd never met, hunched up before me with their faces inches from my own, spat out epithets about my mother and sister. After two knee surgeries I renounced football and haven't missed it for a moment.

   Around this time I found myself at a friend's house for the weekend with nothing in the fridge but leftover, grilled meats from a neighborhood cook-out earlier in the week. My friend's parents had gone off in their Camper and left little else behind. We ate steak for breakfast, sausage for lunch and chicken for dinner. This was long before anyone had dreamed up a fad-diet featuring such excess and after three days of corpuscular glut we agreed to experiment with vegetarianism, just to see how long we could go. Coming off that weekend, refraining for a bit was no big deal, although American cuisine in the Woodstock era wasn't what it is today and options beyond spaghetti were limited. Still, sensitivity and awareness were coming into fashion and my renunciation of meat might well have proved the gateway to more effective dating, so I stuck with it. For about twenty years, as it turned out, finally throwing in the towel after a trip to Australia and Indonesia rendered the whole thing fairly pointless; the Australians didn't eat vegetables and the Indonesians would simply respond to queries regarding the contents of any dish based on what they imagined from my inflection that I might want to hear. I resumed the ways of the flesh obliquely, though, coming back via such exotics as Kangaroo kebabs and broiled Crocodile. Back in the States, I renounced vegetarianism and haven't missed it for a moment.

   The other day I was out in the woods cutting up dead-fall hardwood to supplement our dwindling woodpile. 

   After a few hours of stumbling and careening through the forest  humping the heavy sections of frozen maple trunk out to the truck I was pretty exhausted and sat for a bit on the tailgate, catching my breath, massaging my arthritic hands and catching up on a moment of self-reflection; a dangerous enterprise I might have normally renounced. People often think I'm “handy” because I fix things around the house and perform most of the routine, physical chores integral to New England life myself. We've never hired a lawn-boy or gardener or plowman; I mow and weed and dig and shovel. Having gone to Art School, a basic understanding of construction and painting and electricity and plumbing became essential to making any sort of living at all outside that available in the hospitality trades, so I've always done that sort of thing around the house as well. Most of the time I can figure out how to fix the car or the washer or the stove and it's rare indeed to have a service technician at the house. My father was a do-it-yourselfer and I've become one, too. Just the way I was brought up, I guess. Lately, though, buns-up-kneeling on the ice floe leaking through our roof, with a shattered mallet clutched in a frozen, swollen claw, I'm having second thoughts. Perhaps it's time to renounce the do-it-yourself thing and call for help. 

 After I've renounced self-employment in favor of a regular job.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

At First Blush

     Like most American boys of mid-century vintage my first exposure to images of the naked breast probably came through the pages of The National Geographic Magazine. This would have come before stumbling upon Art Treasures of the Louvre or even noticing the endless stream of figure drawings and paintings my mother brought home from the Art Students' League. Being the often emaciated chest of some far-flung and culturally unfathomable tribeswoman, these images were of some anatomical value, perhaps, but were less satisfying to the imagination than even the deftly rendered lingerie ads in the column breaks of the Daily News. When, a year or so later, I came to understand that a real artist drew naked ladies because that's what artists do, I would spend hours alternately copying the anatomically overwrought nudes of Michelangelo and da Vinci and the relentlessly perky and uplifting illustrations from the papers, often winding up with something along the lines of a muscle-bound, trans-gendered and be-tittied Batman.

   The true epiphany as to how fundamentally important the bosom was to the making of art dawned on me with the discovery of the legendary Land O' Lakes Indian Maiden Trick, wherein, with a bit of old-school cutting and pasting one could make real art out of a butter box. Possessed of a set of knees so transfigurative and peerless, the Indian Maiden could be fleshed out in a few minutes, becoming a pretty respectable if somewhat idealized depiction of the unveiled form, and was certainly more artful and anatomically correct than anything resulting from the famous Pep Boys Matchbook Trick.

   A few years later, walking home from school, I stumbled upon a battered trash can overflowing with Playboy magazines from the late 50's and early 60's. I stuffed as many as I could fit into my book-bag and snuck them into the house for further perusal. The pin-ups and photos in Playboy were still comparatively chaste in those days and focused primarily on the torso; indeed, most of the featured Bunnies wore toreador pants or pleated, cheerleader skirts while flaunting their assets. Maybe it was the soft focus or the photos' inherent lack of definitive line, but I could never seem to make a satisfactory copy from these shots. Turning a page one day I came upon the drawings of Alberto Vargas and that changed everything. I found that by carefully tracing the monthly Vargas Girl, transferring that to a piece of shirt cardboard and working it over with colored pencils, I was well on my way to creating a pretty good facsimile. 

   The first of these drawings I brought in to school and furtively shared with a few of my fellow Fifth Graders caused quite a sensation, nearly attracting the attention of Mr. McNought, a fiery Welshman who would certainly brook no smut in his classroom and was not above the use of corporal punishment. After school, though, while waiting for the downtown bus, a large group of boys who had heard rumors of this exciting new development clustered around for a peek, and it was only a matter of moments before I found myself taking orders at twenty-five cents a pop. For the rest of that year I could barely keep up with the demand for ersatz Vargas Girls and before long had abandoned the tracing bit altogether and found my skills at copying these in freehand – even venturing out with a few, sort of composite originals – had vastly improved.


In time I eventually sat before live models and was surprised to discover how almost immediately run-of-the-mill the whole naked lady experience turned out to be. Drawing the figure from life and getting it right was often pretty grueling and frustrating work, leaving little room for titillation, and where I might have been shocked, at first, to find that naked men engaged in this work as well, I grew to accept, over time, that no one who looked like a Vargas Girl or even the Butter Maiden was ever going to climb atop that dais.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Best Artist

      Oliver was the first Artist I ever hung out with. A slender, freckled wraith of a boy, Oliver sported a clown-like head of curly red hair atop which he affected a noodled beret, round wire-rims and some sort of scarf or ascot he'd filch from his parents' closet for the occasional salons he'd subject me to by way of play-dates in his family's huge apartment. If, at the age of nine or ten, Oliver had been able to complete the image with a jaunty Van Dyke, I'm sure he would have, and the relative pros and cons of removing an ear for authentic effect was a frequent topic of discussion on these strange afternoons. He never wore the ascot and beret at school, where such sartorial overreach would have required having the crap beaten out of him, but in the privacy of his own home, before an uncomfortable audience of one, there seemed to be no limit to his efforts to channel some bygone denizen of La Vie En Rose.

  Where Oliver came by this insight into late Nineteenth Century bohemian culture is a mystery; his parents, I think, were archeologists or anthropologists and were never home. Their apartment was decorated with an array of small pedestals upon which fragments of apparently ancient sculptures and pottery shards were displayed, the walls hung with prints and paintings that seemed modern and important to me, though they weren't to my taste and I knew very little about art beyond what I'd picked up from my mother and her friends. A maid usually let me in and Oliver, in full regalia, would lead me to a sunny portion of the living room where he might have Scotch-taped his own pictures to the wall, floor to ceiling, for us to “critique”. These efforts were about what you'd expect from any third grader: partially fleshed out stick-figures, cockamamie street scenes, landscapes with dragons or horses, with the occasional half-baked, fruit-bowl still life thrown in for professional effect. It seemed important to Oliver that we engage in some sort of quasi-formal discussion about his pictures and I would squirm and struggle for anything at all to say. If these sessions made me uncomfortable, they paled in comparison to those afternoons when Oliver would set up an easel and stool, don a powder blue smock and insist that I sit for a portrait. Assuming the position, eyes asquint, kidney-shaped palette in hand, he might make the requisite, ridiculous gestures with thumb and forefinger before commencing on what, invariably, came out looking more like Oliver himself – or a bowl of fruit – than me. Creepy as this performance was, I would sooner or later get the giggles; Oliver would puff up in a sort of mock tantrum, rip the paper from the easel and demand I take a turn while he sat, which did little to curb my cackles.

   One sunny afternoon while we sat drawing side by side at the coffee table, Oliver suddenly stood up, strode over to the wall and took down a Picasso bullfight lithograph. “Watch this.” He said, prying the backing off the frame and removing the print. Brushing aside our clutter, he lay the litho down on the smoked-glass table, grabbed a pink eraser and, with the tip of his tongue protruding slightly from the corner of his mouth, proceeded with vigor to erase Picasso's penciled signature and, upon that now smudged and sullied spot, signed the thing with “Oliver”. Even then – without fully comprehending either the value of a Picasso or any distinction in provenance between signed prints or the stuff you'd buy at the museum gift shop - I knew this was some sort of major sacrilege. I was stunned by the hubris, the monumental narcissism required for such blasphemy. “I am the best Artist!” Oliver bellowed as he replaced the print in the frame, hung it back on the wall and withdrew a few feet to admire his work. I remember feeling shame and confusion; I couldn't make eye contact with Oliver or look at the wall. Instead, I focused on the tiny pink detritus from the eraser, now tangled in the white, shag rug. I don't know what the consequences of that afternoon were. I don't remember hearing of any punishment or censure, and, though I'm sure I continued to visit his apartment over the ensuing years I can't recall looking at the wall or seeing the print again. I don't know what ever became of Oliver. At one point, decades ago, I'd heard he'd become an actor with a role as the nerdy side-kick in a popular coming-of-age movie.

   For most artists, I think - the painters, the poets, the writers, certainly – creating the thing is a lonely affair, fraught with doubt and struggle and invariably, in the end, less than satisfying. Toiling in obscurity, a little narcissism and hubris go a long way towards keeping you in the game and may just make you a star. Just ask Picasso.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Self On A Shelf

I'm not a Christmas person. After the age of about twelve I began to notice the various stresses and anxieties attendant to the approach of the big day, often punctuated by escalating outbursts and explosions on the part of my father, who had a short fuse and was quick to boil over in pursuit of the perfect Christmas Morning. Despite a few scars along the way, though, those mornings did turn out to be pretty perfect; Dad decorated the tree - it was best to leave that to the precision of his architect's eye and not get in the way – as well as the rest of the house with votives and garlands, fir bows and hand-cut snow flakes, vintage music boxes that played “Fly Me To The Moon” and “La Vie En Rose” in a sort of endless cacophony, gradually diminishing to a single note. He carefully arranged the ancient, Italian nativity scene in the bee-hive oven of the big brick fireplace, placing the creche just so on a bed of straw beneath a flock of tiny, blue clay angels he'd rigged to fly long ago from a piece of wire coat-hanger. After decanting our stockings, we would pause for an endless interval while Dad made sugared grapefruit halves, scrapple, English muffins and slow-scrambled eggs before heading back in to the living room to open an embarrassing abundance of presents for which none of us felt particularly deserving after a week or so of pitched battles and high anxiety. Suzanne and Zinzi adore Christmas and strive for that perfection while I invariably trip over my legacy and screw it up, sooner or later, somewhere along the way.

   Not that my malaise is all Dad's fault. Those years in the Eighties jumping slush-puddles at crowded cross-walks and stuffing myself into packed and reeking subway cars just to wind up in Macy's Basement, Tower Records or – in complete and abject desperation – Azuma's, seemed cold, frustrating and thoroughly unsatisfying. Elbowing through the mob to the display table and pawing over yet another Chemex or pasta machine or fondue set or quiche pan or coffee grinder, when none of these things was even remotely good enough for anyone I was shopping for left me, hours later, dark, brooding and empty-handed with the clock still ticking. The worst gift I ever gave was a ratchet screw-driver I picked up on Canal Street for my Dad; my only defense being that ratchet screw-drivers were something of a novelty then and seemed to me at the time to be more useful than that set of demi-tasse you've all got hidden away in the cupboard over the microwave.

The best gift I ever gave was a gift-wrapped bottle of Courvoisier that had been turned down by a waitress I'd been chasing at Fanelli's. Despondent over her rejection, I determined to hand it off to the first person I saw after leaving the bar. This turned out to be a Mr. James Aloysius Finbar McTavish, a tipsy gentleman who lived on a scrap of packing-crate in the bowels of the Broadway-Lafayette F Train stop. Some months earlier I had passed McTavish tussling over a bottle of something with one of his compatriots in the dark and dismal mid-ships of the station. The other fellow kept bellowing, “ Gimme that bottle, McTavish!” and McTavish shouted back, “ On the sacred name of me dear departed, James Aloysius Finbar McTavish will never surrender this bottle to the likes of you....!”  Of course, this little bit of urban theater stuck with me so that, when I came upon McTavish that sad night I was able to extend the gift-wrapped offering to him with a simple, “Here, McTavish. Merry Christmas....”  and wander away towards the platform with his astounded retorts echoing in the dark and fetid chamber. “Wait, wait,” he bellowed, “ How'dya know me name, Mister? Who the Hell are you? James Aloysius Finbar MacTavish thanks you! Me sainted mother thanks you! May the Saints preserve you and keep you....” He trailed off, drowned out by the arrival of the train.

I'm not much of a New Year's Eve person, either. My friend John's father, by all accounts a world-class inebriate, dubbed this “Amateur Night” and recommended drinking at home for the occasion. Certainly after a few such evenings spent stepping around the puking Bridge and Tunnel set outside McSorley's or worrying at the giddy girl, chartreuse tiara askew, being carried off by a few good men, it's best to be off the streets unless you have a pretty good place to go. My father loved a party, despite his grouchy demeanor, and would throw a good one. These were more fun than Christmas and whether they involved Twister and Cold Duck or transforming the house into some tropical paradise via weeks of papier-mache, the whole neighborhood would show up for a good time, usually culminating with Dad at the piano singing holiday favorites accompanied by one of our pistachio-stuffed Labradors.

   The best New Year's Eve party I ever went to was actually a series of events on the side streets of Soho in 1981. We'd left our sublet in some Mercer Street basement just to see what was going on and immediately got swept up in a sort of Conga-line of revelers threading their way from party to party throughout the neighborhood. No one appeared to have been invited to any of these loft-parties, we just followed the crowds up one flight of stairs while those descending called out the addresses of other hot prospects around the corner or down the street. Groaning boards of ham and champagne greeted us at every turn and no one turned us away. Celebrities were everywhere, Mary Boone, Keith Haring, Andre, Bobby De Niro – everyone in Soho called him Bobby – mixing happily with the common folk as we all tooted on those ubiquitous, unfurling whistle-things. At one point I found myself in line on the stairs behind William S. Burroughs, another renowned dipsomaniac, who smelled like stale piss and was apparently as much of a free-loader that festive night as we were. Oddly, I would find myself in line behind the stinky Burroughs on two or three other occasions over the coming years.

   As for the whole resolution thing, they've rarely worked out. I've lost a few pounds now and again, quit smoking for a minute or two once or twice and, given that I seem to have inherited all my Dad's uglier qualities with few of his virtues, resolved year after year to be a better, more tolerant and forgiving husband and father without much success and a long way to go.

   So Happy New Year, dear reader, may you find and spread tolerance and forgiveness throughout your travels.....