What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding..."

I was playing one of the Three Wise Men the night I broke my nose.  It was the evening of the Christmas pageant and potluck supper at our one-room elementary schoolhouse.  The place was thronged.  Every student in the school had a part, all seventeen or so of us.  I was the myrrh guy.  Not a bad part for first grade.  The costume my mother created was built on the foundation of my robe, a heavy felt material in seasonably appropriate hues of dark reds, forest greens, flecked with white.  It was in a zig-zaggy pattern of an American Indian blanket.  This bothered me, because I knew the story took place in a desert land, overseas and their clothes wouldn’t have looked like my bathrobe.  But, then I figured, well, the wise guys were foreigners and Indians were foreigners so it was OK.  Neither was I entirely pleased with her choice of my backless bedroom slippers for footwear, though I understood they were more credible than my Buster Brown’s.  Throughout my career as an actor, theatrical makeup had always helped me get into character.  (It would the following summer at our town’s talent show when I impersonated Elvis Presley on the improvised stage of a flat bed truck; the sideburns mother drew on my cheeks with her eyebrow pencil put me over.  I won an honorable mention.)  For the distinguished gentleman traveling afar, the same eyebrow pencil shaded a full, Babylonian beard, which hurt like hell when she rubbed it off.

The pièce de résistance was the turban.  Mother - until marrying a handsome pilot, one time lawyer, would be rancher and moving to rural Kansas – had been in charge of her family’s department store on the West Coast.  She packed some fancy clothes in her trousseau.  Evening turbans had been in style at some point in her salad days because, using one of her diaphanous silk scarves with peacock colors, she easily fashioned an authentic headdress.  I felt like the Sheik of Araby.

All went off without a hitch and through the magic of quick change I reappeared after the show from the boy’s cloakroom in my nice trousers, white shirt and clip-on tie.  (Beneath my robe the whole time, leaving me flushed.)  After the play, the holiday feast was coming to life in the basement.  It held a full kitchen and an open area where we ate our lunches from sacks and pails during cold or rainy days and did sloppy projects.  Tin foil was being pulled and folded for leftovers, pots stirred, and meats sliced.  This was farmland food, and every mother wanted to contribute her best dishes.  It was the one shindig of the year, outside of our town’s fair (where I lip-sank to “I Wanna Be Your Teddy Bear), that everyone set aside their petty feuds, forgot their big problems and gathered in community spirit.  Long tables were choked with ham, roasts, a turkey, fried chicken, casseroles of all kinds, mounds of potatoes and yucky yams, overcooked green beans larded with bacon, and Jell-O things.  More than we all could eat, more than we had seen at one time, more than many could afford to share.  Best of all, and where the Midwest farm wife had no equal, were the desserts.  Latticed and two-crusted fruit pies, creams, custards, chiffons, hatbox-sized frosted cakes, Angel and Devil, German Chocolate, ginger, orange, and lemons, shinny drizzled Bundt’s, stood like a squad, visible beyond the pass-through kitchen counter, along with platters of cookies, cupcakes, and brownies.

I had to take a shit.  (Or, in our family euphemism, “have a session.”)  I had been so excited I’d held it in all that day.  I dashed out the door of the schoolhouse, leapt down the eight front steps, around the flag pole, and sprinted toward the outhouses.  We’ve all seen port-a-potties.  An outhouse is a permanent, generally, larger version.  At Howard School, they were well constructed and maintained, not the kind you see pictured in jokey postcards of a falling down, weather beaten shack with a quarter moon cutout in the door, and captions like, “The new addition to the family manse!”  Ours were crispy white clapboard two-seaters, with L shaped entrances; you’d loop around two corners to enter the open doorway of the commode.  There were separate toilets for the boys and the girls, set forty yards behind the schoolhouse, for obvious reasons.  The repositories, nice as they may be, sat over an open cesspool, and in hot weather, with the wind in the right direction, you wanted some distance from the student population.

Running, I realized it was dark, black dark.  There was a single bulb on a tall telephone pole to illuminate the front of the building, but the toilets were away from that, behind the school.  The windows, only along one wall, shed no light onto the large open field I had to cross.  I became disoriented, at full tilt.  I couldn’t see anything at all, but I knew I must be close.  I hit hard and fell back onto the grass.  To my left I saw the shape of the outhouse.  I had run between the boy’s and the girl’s, just past, tripped over a low stone wall, my face going into the barbed wire fence that separated the school yard from the neighboring property.

I still had to crap.  I didn’t take the time to go into the toilet.   I just took down my pants, crapped on the grass, pulled them up and ran back to the school.  It was easy to see my way because there were lights in that direction.  Most of the parents were still upstairs.  I pushed into the middle of the pack, like a Dickensian pick pocket.  Everyone I moved by stopped talking and stared down at me, creating a wake of quiet.  I thought it best to start crying in case I was in trouble.  By luck or homing instinct I ended up near my mother.  She took my face in her hands.  I looked down at my shirt, the front covered with blood.  I hadn’t remembered to zip up and my shirt tail was sticking out of my fly.  The school had no running water, but there was a hand pump over a sink in the kitchen, and that’s where she took me, down to the basement, to clean me up as best she could and tuck me back together.  I gave my folks a blubbery account of what happened, but dad wasn’t even mad, so we stayed for the meal.  The next day mother took me to our local clinic in a nearby town.  I cut my lip on the barbed wire and had to have a tetanus shot.  The wooden fence post broke my nose.  Doctor Ruble stuffed long, pencil thin strands of cotton up both nostrils and taped it over.  I couldn’t breathe out of my nose.

The morning I was to go and have the cotton removed, I sneezed, and the strips shot from my nose like those gag boxes where a spring loaded snake flies out.  This thing went clear across my room.  It had been in my nose for six weeks.  Mother had to pick it up.  She had one of those “last straw” looks on her face.  I have a funny nostril now, more like a slit as a friend once said, and a scar at the corner of my mouth.

I presume I was the first Elvis impersonator.

Anon, James

Monday, December 6, 2010

Will the Real Ding-Dong Daddy, Please Stand Up


                                                                                                 JANUARY 31,  1945


I found the above among my mother’s effects after she died in 2003.  The folded paper had yellowed but was in good condition.  By the looks of the font, it had come off a kind of teletype machine, printed front and back, containing several domestic stories and news of the war.  The excerpt of Mr. Van Wie, an overweight man “on the wrong side of 50”, as one report put it, is recreated here as close to how it actually appears on the document I found, including the ironic wartime typo, “ARMOROUS”.  As far as I know, my mother was not victimized by the “Ding Dong Daddy”, though she was living in the Bay area at the time of the scandal.  (Van Wie would flirt with ladies on his streetcar, and if vulnerable, propose marriage.)  This was not an approach my mother would brook.  My father, a pilot during WWII, seeing the dispatch while deployed in the South Pacific, mailed it back to my mother, to share a laugh.  According to one article (see site listed below), it was a highly publicized scuttlebutt, picked up widely by the national press as a relief story from the war.  Mother decided it was a memento.  It came to light he’d married some fifteen women.

My father was something of a ding dong daddy himself.  From Missouri, he was stationed in San Francisco during the war.  When he met my mother he was married.  His wife, back in the Midwest, was taking care of their daughter, who would later be my half-sister.  I had not been born.  My mother, recently divorced, was from a prominent Piedmont family who owned several major businesses in the Bay area.  A beautiful, still young society divorcée with a three year old son (one day to be my older brother), meets this 6’5” pilot in a uniform.

When I was just old enough to read and to be left to myself, I was snooping in a box.  I came across a newspaper clipping containing a photo of my father with a woman on his arm.  The caption read, “Mr. and Mrs. James and Virginia Selby…”  I thought it odd as the woman was not my mother.  And, anyway, her name was Marjorie.  Maybe the reporter had the details wrong and the woman was a cousin, or an acquaintance he was escorting.  Further into the article, it mentioned their home as being in St. Joseph, Missouri.  In my family history, we had lived in Oakland where I was born, a brief time in Colorado, then Long Boat Key before settling in Kansas by the time I was four.  Never in Missouri.  This was curious in the way of our family silverware having an “M” monogrammed on the handle.  “M” for Marjorie, I had always thought.  Somehow, an inner voice, one complicit with my mother, told me to fold up the clipping, return it to the box, push the box back into the bottom of the linen closet.  I was a good boy; I didn’t think of it again.

Not, that is, until I was in high school.  My father died suddenly while on the job.  A few weeks later there was a routine hearing for compensation.  My mother was to be questioned under oath to establish certain legal relationships.  I was required to be present in the courtroom.  During her testimony, an attorney asked my mother about the parentage of me, my brother and sister.  She took a moment, fumbled with a handkerchief as I had seen many an actress do on Perry Mason, and proceeded to answer the questions put to her.  Both my mother and father had previous marriages bearing, respectively, my brother and sister.  I was the only child from their union.  When the hearing was concluded she came to me, in tears, and said she was sorry I had had to learn of this in such a way.  She’d always meant to tell me.  I held her and told her it was all right, I had kind of figured it out on my own.  That was in 1966.  I was a good boy and we never spoke of it again, with one exception.

Twenty years later I traveled to Kansas from New York City where I was living, to see my mother.  She was 70.  One afternoon, I made the two of us a Bloody Mary.  We were having a nice visit.  I made a couple of more Bloody Marys.  I had been divorced myself by this time, so maybe the subject of my parents courtship didn’t seem so risqué to her any longer.  While stationed in California, she told me, my father lived in a carriage house behind one of the mansions in the hills above Oakland, not far from the house my mother built with her ex-husband.  They met at a party and began an affair.  Because of her family’s position, she felt they had to be discreet.  Even if it isn’t necessary, the secretiveness of a tryst can be provocative.  After dark, she would drive to my father’s house and park her car out of sight in his garage.  The next morning she would put on a scarf, dark glasses, and leave very early.  Eventually, my father divorced and married my mother.  His daughter came to live with them.  I was born a few years later.

Not an original story, particularly, during the uncertainty of war, but it was one my mother couldn’t share with me.  Maybe she felt there was too much fragility in our family as it was.  Or, perhaps, it was something for her alone, like a love letter kept in a locked box.  When I was visiting my mother’s sister in Palo Alto over a college Christmas break, I told her how I’d found out about mother’s first marriage.  She was flabbergasted my mother hadn’t explained.  It was an ordinary divorce, she said; no stigma involved.  My mother’s first husband, Bert Meyer (hence the “M” on the silverware), was a nice enough guy but never “right” for her.  He was a plain and simple man and Marjorie needed - something more.  What bothered me about the whole saga was everyone in our family knew.  My brother, whom I tormented as younger brothers will do, must have wanted to yell it in my face.  An otherwise model brother, he got his frustrations out in other ways, becoming quite the practical joker.  My sister eloped when she was 16, going AWOL with a kid from the Keys.  Our father was so maddened, he stopped talking to her.  Though my mother corresponded with her stepdaughter - in secret, it would be fourteen years before we all would reunite and meet her three children.  Even then, my nieces and nephews were cautioned never to mention their Grandma Virginia in front of Uncle James.  They were of elementary school age.

My mother was an amazing, brilliant, loyal, resilient lady, a remarkably giving mother.  I was a good son.  I was, also, an inveterate liar until I was forty.

What did Francis Van Wie, the Ding-Dong Daddy and lion tamer endure do you suppose?  Francis?  My sister's first husband, the kid from the keys, the father of their five children, was named Francis.  He became a traveling salesman, if you know what I mean, and I think that you do...

Anon, James

To read an account of the real Ding-Dong Daddy:


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Shrinking Ferns

I do not have a green thumb.  I grew up in a very rural area of Kansas on 400 acres of grasses and crops and cows and mulberry trees.  The last thing I want to do is grow something.  (There was a jolly woman, a friend of my mothers, long since gone.  Her name was Dorothy Wiscombe and she was a bleached blond, chain-smoking, over-weight, part-time lounge singer in Topeka.  I adored her.  I thought of her for the first time in thirty years because she once quipped she was so bad with plants that the plastic vine in her kitchen was losing leaves.)  Dylan asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?”  I would ask, “Where have all the ferns gone?”  I reflect back on my days in NYC and remain, to this day, properly chauvinistic.  I’ve observed, during frequent travels away from the city, whatever happened in NYC would, sooner or later, crop up everywhere else, creating universality to most crazes.  In the 70’s, for example, the de rigueur restaurant style featured brass, wood, faux Tiffany lamps, and plants: hanging, standing, potted.  Ferns were as rampant as kudzu.  You needed a machete to reach a table.  Not only in restaurants, but lobbies, offices, and waiting rooms were decorated with all manner of flora.  Apartments had ferns atop radiators, on end tables and, particularly, hanging in bathrooms as the moisture from steaming showers was good for them.  Didn’t matter, they always dried and died, shedding little thyme-like browned and crispy leaves that crunched under your bare feet.

Avocados were a good starter plant for young and poor because you ate them first and then put toothpicks in the sides of the seed, placing your mini Sputnik in a glass with its butt touching water.  You had to keep the water level up and get it right end up if it was to sprout.  If all went well, in a couple of weeks you’d get a shoot and a tiny leaf.  Those who did have green thumbs could get it to bush out.  I couldn’t cultivate mine beyond the stick phase, though my seeds would generate copious, albino roots in their slimy water.  Jade plants were fairly fail-safe.  You could get a cutting from a friend with a mother ship plant, gently transport it home in a damp napkin, and put it in a glass of water until it sprouted roots.  Then you’d have to buy dirt and plant the cutting.  Cacti were the felines of the plant world: aloof.  Fichus trees were a bit more serious in terms of investment, space, and horticulture.  The good news was they took a long time to die, but at least you kind of got your money’s worth.  My one and only success was a “mother-in-laws tongue” I inherited from a theatrical producer who closed up shop.  Unlike the plays she produced, it had eternal life.  In its shoe-sized ceramic, it fit perfectly on various apartment window sills reaping light from narrow shafts.  Like some of my lovers, it thrived on neglect.  It didn’t really grow much bigger during the time I had it, its long bayonet leaves staying happily stunted in the nubby green pot.  I had it for 20 years until I left the city.

Part of the attraction of house plants was to bring the outside in.  Particularly, in New York, and specifically, in the 70’s, when the city was filthy and sooty and air quality so wretched it was not healthy to be outside for long periods.  When you got back to your apartment, your indoor plants gave the impression of having filtered the air and were visually soothing.  Given the city is cleaner and greener now, and allowing for my theory of what happens in New York doesn’t stay in New York, I am willing to bet there are less house plants per capita than there were in the 70’s.  Nowadays, you just don’t see that many indoor plants, is my point.  I never see a fern.

Another anomaly.  Where’ve all the shrinks gone?  We all had those, too.  Maybe they’ve become massage therapists.

Anon, James

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Subconsciously, the last two entries, Whack-a-Mole and Bent have both touched, somehow, on my father and driving.  I wrote these close together and suspect the theme music was still in my head.  There is more to be said.

Anon, James


What do we do with all the things we don’t want to recall?  Ala Scarlett O’Hara?  “Fiddle dee dee.  I won’t think about now, I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I can stand it.”  Or more smugly, in the manner of William Jennings Bryan, who said, “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.”  Like that goofy arcade game Whack-a-Mole, where you take a heavy mallet and pummel the beasts popping up from holes.  At first it’s easy, but the more you beat them down the faster they rear.  There are people who must be having Dickensian style, horrible nightmares about what they’ve done.  At least, I hope so.  The really bad seeds, war criminals, sexual and financial predators, spammers, I suspect, are without conscious.  Anyway, nightmares are not only for monsters.

You need to look the mole in the eye.  The blind leading the bound.  Therapy was helpful, in spite of my bullshit through most of it.  If my therapists had really got out of me what I was thinking, if I’d broached what I truly feared, or the fact that I wasn’t “feeling” anything at all, I would have been bankrupt before I finally called it quits.  Be that as it may, there comes a point if you don’t own up, you don’t move on.

“As Faulkner wrote, “Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest.”  Most of the recollections that redden my cheeks occurred before I got out of grade school.  Lord of the Flies gives me the heebie-jeebies because I can so see those fascist inclinations in my boyhood self.  We almost have to commit some reproachful acts in our lives to understand what it feels like so we don’t do it again.  On the other hand, misplaced guilt makes you weary.  Henry Miller describes receiving a middle-of-the-night-phone-call from a guy telling him a mutual friend had just died; the guy went on about how sad and tragic it all was.  Miller wrote he hadn’t liked the dead fellow much, wasn’t that broken up about it, and what’s more, he felt a sense of relief because he owed the guy a lot of money.

When I was seventeen I was driving alone near our farm in Kansas on a warm and bright January afternoon listening to the radio.  The music was interrupted by one of those breaking news bulletins.  I listened as they announced my father had just died on arrival at our local hospital.  He suffered a fatal heart attack, the disk jockey said, after testifying for a client in a probation case at the county court.  He was 57 years old, and is survived by his wife and two sons.  What about my sister?  There was no shoulder to pull onto, just a deep ditch, so I rolled to a stop in the middle of the road.  The radio station resumed the rock-n-roll.  A farm house was near, but I didn’t know the folks.  Weren’t they supposed to notify next of kin before they announce that stuff?  We had breakfast that morning, my dad and mom and I.  He said his stomach was bothering him.  Maybe it was nerves about his court appearance.  The hospital was fifteen miles away, in the center of Topeka.  I had to get to it because I knew that is where my mother would be.  As if dilated, I was seeing too much.  The light seemed to be brighter and hazy.  I drove a few miles, got onto the highway, down into the city to the hospital.  Once I parked, I lost it a bit.  Now, like a movie shot with a hand held camera, my purview was jerky.  When I entered the emergency room I started to shout to no one in particular that I wanted to see my father.  A nurse and a work mate of my dad’s who I didn’t know very well, shepherded me to my mother.  She was in a waiting room, bawling.  She leapt to hold me.  He died in my arms, she said, in the ambulance.  She made a point to tell me he didn’t suffer.  Right after that, the work mate and someone else, took us out to the sidewalk, where we waited for the traffic light to change.  We crossed the street to the Penwell-Gable funeral parlor.  My mother had to make all the arrangements, then and there.  In twenty minutes I had gone from a daydreamer to selecting a casket.

It took me some years to accept, after that radio announcement, when my head was ringing as if I’d been in a blast, what I felt was relief.  I was free - of his repression, his depression, his will, his love, his wisdom.  That is how I was able to drive those miles.  It gave me a shot of adrenalin, enough to clear my senses and allow me, automatically, to operate.

“I am myself indifferent honest,” says Hamlet.  “But, yet I could accuse me of such things it were better my own mother had not borne me.”  Haven’t we all felt that way?  It’s almost always in retrospect we see what havoc we’ve caused.  Otherwise, we might not do it.  I’ve been an emotional terrorist.  I have strapped myself with bombs and blown myself and everything in range to bits.  But, like video games, you eventually come back to life and proceed.  I don’t get religion and, as I see it, there is no deity of any cloth to ask forgiveness.  (I had a basketball coach in middle school who said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – only you do it first.”)  Seems to me there is a perplexing lack of parity within the Ten Commandments.  Coveting a donkey carries the same weight as murder?  By my count, I’ve achieved seven of the ten and moved beyond the venial on several delightful occasions.  As to the Seven Deadly Sins?  Wrath (not so much), greed, sloth, pride, lust (oy vey), envy, gluttony?  Strike six.  Anyway, these evil-doings aren’t necessarily in my private ken of lapses.  I don’t see how there can be a neat, general list of torments.  We create our own.

Anon, James.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Are habits comforting rituals or are we enslaved in compulsive patterns?  Probably both but either way, how weird.  My dad was “Mr. Habit.”  Where to start?  When he took his change out of his pocket, he would stack coins of like denominations on his bureau in little Leaning Towers of Pisa.  “Mr. Stacker” was a smoker, too, and after he tapped off an ash in his ashtray, he used the lit tip of the cigarette to sweep them into a tiny mound.  After he extinguished the fag, he neatly piled the butts on the opposite side of the ashtray like fire wood.  And, if you happened to jiggle the ashtray or somehow knock his stack over, he would blow his.  (Smokers have a corner on habit and I don’t mean their addiction.  As a bartender in New York City during the day I saw a lot of smokers.  One regular insisted I not clean out his ashtray, for like the fictional detective Nero Wolfe who kept the bottle tops from his beers on the side of his desk to track how many he drank, my customer wanted to know how much he was smoking.)  Dad had a way he parked our car and trucks and we all had to park them in that particular way.  His method of barbequing, the whole set up resembling a great white hunter’s encampment, was a never varied ritual.  The way he drank his beer, replacing it slowly, precisely back on its coaster, giving it an infinitesimal turn in order to bring the label of the Miller High Life bottle into the exact position his fixation asserted.  You could tell when he was feeling no pain (which was the point, I guess) because he would make this noise by sucking air between his lips and teeth, like every two minutes.  That really bugged me.  When he was making the sucking noise you never knew what might happen.

Crippling.  Not just for the habitual, but those nailed down around them.

I didn’t always have an easy relationship with my father, not for lack of love, but as a result of his long struggles with depression and alcoholism.  I was riding in our pickup with him one brand-new summer morning.  He was in his early fifties and I would have been ten or eleven.  As he drove he used his right hand to pluck a cigarette from a neatly opened pack kept in his right breast shirt pocket.  Gently, he would pinch the end of the filterless, short Camel between his thumb and forefinger, pull it from its pack, and place the opposite end between his lips.  It was a movement I’d seen him make thousands of times.  As I watched it occurred to me the motion looked awkward, especially as he was getting heavier and not as flexible.  Without thinking too much about it (with my dad, spontaneity was not always welcome), I said, “Why not put your cigarettes in your left shirt pocket?”  All his shirts, mostly from the 40’s and 50’s, had two pockets.  “Be easier to take the cigarette out if you reached across your chest.”  He wasn’t used to my piping up about stuff.  I caught him off-guard.  On another day, he might have gotten angry but I could see he was pondering the image.  Then, the brain wave brightened his face.  He sputtered and chuckled and said, “You’re right.  I’ll be damned!  I’ll try that out”, and moved the pack to his left pocket.  From then on he carried his cigarettes that way until, some six years later, he died of a massive heart attack.

As a young actor, I was in a theater company for some years with a now very famous actress.  On stage you only watched her, so compelling she could be.  Beautiful and sexy, and all that, she was one hell of an actor.  However, she had these mannerisms that always appeared in whatever role she was working on; facial tics, gestures, movements, completely unique to her, though not necessarily organic to the character.  Many actors and stars bank on these personal idiosyncrasies which can be captivating.  But, our director, a mentor to us all, was concerned she would handicap herself as an actor, as well as the development of the character.  If we were doing two or three plays in repertory, alternating from one to the other each night, the audiences would see Joan of Arc move and behave in the same way as Laura Wingfield, and Cecily Cardew.  Well, as any crafty actor would do in the face of a director’s criticism, she said yes, yes, and continued to do as she pleased and go on to win Academy and Tony awards.  Not so bad, those habits.

I am trying to think what I do that is habitual.  Maybe that is part of the dilemma: you can’t really see it in yourself.  Well, there is one harmless proclivity.  When I eat, I have a tendency to portion out my meals as I am eating so when I am at the end I have one bite of each item, say a forkful of eggs, bacon, and potato...a bite of toast…two sips of coffee.  I get really annoyed if Kid or Darling decides to sample my repast beyond the point of no return, when it would be hard for me to make it all come out even.  I have my fussy way of drinking lapsang souchung tea in the morning, or the pouring and drinking of wine, but those are ritual based, rather than chronic.  The truth be told, I am naturally lazy and too unreliable to form serious fixations requiring even unconscious efforts.  Much of this behavior is in the nature of living things.  Butterflies migrate along the same route, cows wear a narrow path through the grass of pastures, olive or a twist.  It’s a comfort, one less thing that needs to be thought about or decided upon.  We’re married to our manner, for better or worse.

Hey, Rocky!  Watch me pull a habit out of my hat!

Anon, James.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Certainly Sigmund

Thornton Wilder’s name came up in some correspondence recently.  He is one of those writers, like Shakespeare or Johnson or Lenin, or Lennon, or Plato, or the Bible, Chomsky…maybe Johnny Paycheck, certainly Freud, (add your own names to the list), who get quoted a lot.  We can call up those writers whose works we, and the world, know the best.  Of my own list, I’m only somewhat familiar with two, though I admit to quoting from the Bible for a ready cliché, which, heaven forbid, I have not read.  “Easier for a camel…la la la.”  Or “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.”  (I’m a bit thin skinned.)

In my correspondence, I quoted a line from Our Town and made some crack about, thankfully, not having been named Thornton.  That gave me pause.  I had made a shallow and thoughtless remark.  Thornton…Thornton…Kind of pretty sounds.  Pleasant to speak.  Surely, (“Don’t call me Shirley!”) parents put a lot of thought into choosing their child’s name or, perhaps, have a weighty tradition to consider.  Like my friend from Boston named Bolyston.  (Google it.)  Another friend of mine was in a New York City public hospital to deliver her second child and was sharing the room with a young mother, who, in this case, had not considered a name her new born.  The hospital needed the bed back and wanted to dismiss the roommate, but required a name to enter on the birth certificate.  As the young mother lay in her gown on the hospital bed casually smoking - even back then this was verboten - inspiration struck.

“While I been in here,” the Madonna said, exhaling smoke, “I heard a pretty name.”  My weary friend, still in the course of a long labor asked, “And, what was that?”

“I’m going to name my kid…Carcinoma,” she said, without a trace of irony.

Some names may be harder to live down than others.

I was a “Junior” having been given the same first and middle name of my father.  I was never referred to as “Junior”, but rather “Little Jim”, my dad was called, “Big Jim”.  He was, too.  Six feet, five inches tall, and two hundred and fifty pounds.  I was, well, a skinny…little…kid.  I didn’t start out as skinny.  Rather, like the Bob Wills’ song:

“Roly Poly, daddy’s little fatty!
Bet he’s gonna be a man someday!”

I was pretty chubby as a baby and one day, dressed in my Parisian apache dancer outfit, my old man got a kick out of it and started calling me “Butch.”  That nickname stuck with me until, in one of life’s cruel coincidences, I ended up in a one-room school in rural Kansas with a total student population of 15, and another boy named Butch.  He really was, though.  He already had a bullet scar in his stomach from when he and his younger brother were playing hunter with a real rifle.  My friend Butch was the deer during that unfortunate mishap.  My nickname got dropped.  He was a nice kid.  Though, inadvertently, he stabbed me in the back of the hand with a lead pencil.  It was really my fault.  He was only trying to stab my book when I reached out to protect it.  I had a scar, too, then!

After that, I was “Jimmy”, then “Jim” until I moved to New York City upon graduation from college to become an actor.  I used to joke about finding a stage name.  “Preston Strong” was a contender.  I lived in mid-town and could not avoid Times Square, which was rather a scary strip resembling seedy scenes in Midnight Cowboy, rather than the clean, spanking Disney set of today.  I used to marvel at the porn movie names up on the marquees, like “Myles Long” and “Justin Thyme.”  After some years of struggle and study, I got a wonderful gig at The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in the Cleveland area.  (That was their name then; they’ve changed it to Great Lakes Theater Festival.)  Anyway, I met an actress, we fell in love, and one day, she looked at me and said, “Why not call yourself: ‘James?’”  OK.  Her name was Erika.  Except, her given name was Mary Lynn.  In high school, Mary Lynn went off to do a season of summer stock and her progressive, right-thinking mother got her fitted with a diaphragm, and told her, “If you want to have sex, make it someone you care about, and put this in first.”  She did both and his name was Eric.  Years later when it came time to list her name with Actor’s Equity (just like the NYC hospital bureaucracy, you have to claim a name), Mary Lynn decided to change hers to “Erika” even though she and Eric’s summer romance had ended.  (Thirty years later they hooked up again and married.)

When I met Darling (who refuses to use her middle name; she doesn’t like it), we decided to get pregnant.  (It’s possible that occurred in Florence, a name we couldn’t use because my mother, Marjorie Louise, hated her Aunt Florence.)  We spent months and months, at least nine, trying to choose two names as we didn’t know the sex.  A daughter was born.  We were happy with the name we gave her and still are.  We chose a name that was classic, yet singular.  People would say, “Oh!  That was my great grandmother’s name!”  It was unique until a popular actress did a semi-successful movie with the name in the title.  Oh, well.  Kid owns her name and that is what really it’s all about.

Costello: Look, you gotta outfield?
Abbott: Sure.
Costello: The left fielder's name?
Abbott: Why.
Costello: I just thought I'd ask you.
Abbott: Well, I just thought I'd tell ya.
Costello: Then tell me who's playing left field.
Abbott: Who's playing first.
Costello: I'm not... stay out of the infield! I want to know what's the guy's name in left field?
Abbott: No, What is on second.
Costello: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Abbott: Who's on first!
James: Anon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hoary Stories

It’s self-defeating to eat a handful of trail mix just before I go to bed.  It makes for a lot of work to brush my teeth because at my age there are more places I have to inspect.  I’m a diligent flosser, 353 to 357 days a year.  If I miss a night, which is rare, I’ll do it the next morning.  Results at the dentist have proven this industry pays off.  (Parenthetically [or is that obvious?], do you sometimes look at an object, like a pack of dental floss, or a lamp finial, and wonder how someone comes to manufacture those particular items?  “What’s your line?”  “Oh, I make the nose pads on eyeglasses!”  “You don’t say?!”  Many a fortune has been built on the profits of toilet flanges.)

We had a recent house guest, a true gentleman of the world who, at eighty-four years old, continues to travel extensively, hold a job, volunteer everywhere, is curious, interested, and generous of spirit.  He confessed he is shrinking.  A diminutive man to begin with, he says it is hard to find pants that aren’t too long, and often has to have them shortened by a neighbor with a sewing machine.  Escorting him during his stay I noticed he had, indeed, rolled up the cuffs of his chinos.  I wanted to quote T. S. Eliot’s line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Like he needs to hear that?

I’ll be damned, when I last visited the doctor and had my weight and height recorded, I had shrunk, too.  I have always been 6’2’’.  (Well, accurately, 6’1¾”.  But, that was so awkward to say.)  This last time, I was measured at 6’1”!  I have lost ¾ of an inch!  (I prefer to say that than one inch.)  I have compressed over the years of bartending , pounding the pavement, lifting weights, even sitting in a desk chair, deterioration…whatever it is that does it…it has happened, is happening.

Another tricky thing about aging: getting a grip.

I’ve always liked the image of Maurice Chevalier as the perfect graceful gentleman.  As a kid I would see him in movies like the Can Can.  He was the boulevardier in Fanny with Leslie Caron and Charles Boyer.  He had this warm, great grin, boundless wisdom, and unapologetic adoration of beautiful women.  He totally got away with openly flirting because he his utter charming and women knew he knew which end is up, even if he didn’t stand a chance.  This is a fellow who, at 18, was working in the musical theater in Paris and had a lover twice his age from the Folies Bergère.

I discovered, at a certain age, you begin to disappear to the sexual world, and I don’t mean shrink.  You become neutered.  You are no longer seen in a carnal way…at…all.  It is unseemly to make a sexual bon mot to a woman or even chat about the good old days with some of the boys.  They don’t want to hear exploits or transports.  Or visualize it.  You can tell they don’t believe it, anyway.

Referring to my beloved Darling, our recent gentleman guest remarked, “You are truly blessed.”  He is right.  I live with one of the remarkable people.  There is no thought of seeking out any hanky-panky.  (May we all accept that fantasy is another subject?)  I miss New York from time to time, but I wouldn’t move back there.  Being on the hunt - summarized by G. B. Shaw as the “life force” - or simply flirting has been standard operating procedure since puberty.  Not to is a bit like learning to live without one of your senses.  Though, it isn’t all bad; rather a time saver.

I accept I am no longer a blade.  Or, even attractive.  To tell the truth, I don’t like to look at myself in the mirror.  I won’t draw a look from…anyone.  Not even women my age.  Through the inequity of life, they’ve had longer experience of the world averting its eyes.  They won’t risk it anymore.  Not that older folk can’t have a sensual and physical life.  Ever see Helen Mirren on the red carpet?  Tell me she isn’t ready to get down.  Picasso fathered Paloma in 1949 with his mistress Gilot, some forty years his junior.  He was 70.  She walked out on him in ‘53 because he was repeatedly unfaithful.  Fame and the seductive appeal of talent play a part in this saga; nevertheless, he was a long-time dawg.  Really, outside of the scandal pages, it isn’t very titillating to imagine.

I no longer wish to be Maurice or Pablo.  I am James.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Girl with a Pencil in Her Hair

I caught my daughter last night…doing her homework.  Though, this is not unusual, as she does homework continually.  So, when I say I caught her, I mean I observed her from across the room, the living room, where the three of us were sitting.  The television was on, which doesn’t interfere with her focus, anymore than an athlete is disturbed by crowd noise.  She had no idea I was looking at her.

A director in the theater once remarked, “If you want to see what concentration looks like, watch animals.”  Within animals there is no sub-text, no ambiguous behavior.  To hold a piece of meat above a dog, or notice a cat spying a bird is to see pure intention.  Kid was likewise absorbed in reading and making notes in a spiral pad.  Content, engaged, applied.  There was a noted calmness, an absence of frown in her face or fidget in her manner.  Like a cobbler, or a watchmaker at task, she was assured, even, contented.  I won’t say she is never without dread or confusion, because she is learning new and complex material.  But, she seems to embrace all this, not fight or flee it, and never gives up.

She has become a role model for me.  Kid gets home from a full day at school and starts in doing homework.  I calculate she is putting in, minimum, 14 to 16 hours a day.  Weekends, too.  It has made me gripe less and become more productive and diligent, whether in my job, or, gawd forbid, around the house.  Real homework, you might say.  I have never proven to be the handiest of men and I kick when pressed to do such things.  I’d rather be cooking.  (This is very much the way Kid is when asked to clean her room.  But, we don’t give her chores or duties around the house.  As we see it, she’s doing what needs to be done.)  I suspect I could almost be considered a bit of a workaholic for the amount of time put into my job.  But, we don’t look at Kid and say, “Wow, she’s a seventeen year old workaholic.”  She is applying herself, really applying herself, to accomplishing what she deems important.  There is a level of competitiveness in it, she gets a rise out of where she sits in the score of things, but it seems a healthy dose.  She is proud of the grades she’s accumulated.  (I won’t mention specifically because I don’t want to jinx her – like mentioning a no-hitter in the dugout.)  Seeing her go through these gargantuan assignments and come out of it…enriched…is wondrous.

But, this is what I observed.  What I saw, what I caught, was a young and pretty girl.  There is never enough light when she studies, but what light there was gave the room an ivory flush, and the television provided a fire-like flicker.  As my Darling likes to say, Kid discovered her curls during her year in France, and that night armfuls of cinnamon hair escaped a pile and bounced to her shoulders.  Some of her height comes from her neck, which those Slinky curls accentuated.  The clavicle, too seldom celebrated for its ornamentality, made Calder-like, the swing of her arms, the twist of shoulders, and the capering hands.  Long pale legs curled and flexed beneath her.  There she sat, remote and occupied with biology, while beauty echoed in bone shadows and hue of youth.

The end of daylight saving will give her an hour more to finish her paper.

Anon, James.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hells Bells

Flash: they still make payphones.  A good thing as I needed one the other day.  (More on that later.)  I moved to New York City in 1970 to begin a career.  I used an answering service with real people to take messages for me.  It was before answering machines.  (A 1956 Comden/Green/Styne musical, Bells Are Ringing, ran for nearly four years on Broadway.  It starred Judy Holliday and was directed by Jerome Robbins, with choreography by Bob Fosse and was set in an answering service.  There’s a movie version with her and Dean Martin, directed by Vincente Minnelli.)  There were two tiers of service.  The most economical (about $15 a month and a remembrance at Christmas) provided you an independent number.  You would give that number out or put it on your resume.  People could call that number leave a message for you.  Then, throughout the day, you would call in and ask for your messages.  Or, the fancier tier, where the service would be tied into your home number ($25 to $30), and after a set amount of rings, the service operator would pick up the line and take a message.  That was cool; like having a maid.  It’s a bit sad, particularly in today’s economy, to think of all those businesses that closed and the lost jobs when answering machines were developed…like the innovation of self-serve gas pumps.

Going even further back, if I may, when I lived on the farm in Kansas in the 50’s, we had a “party” line.  A group of 8 families were tied to one common line, like extensions.  Sometimes, you would be having a phone conversation and you would hear a neighbor pick up their phone.  There would be a little click sound.  Mostly, people would say, “Sorry” and hang back up and just wait a bit.  You could tell if they stayed on the line to listen, and then you would have to admonish them.  “Would you please get off the line?”  You couldn’t tell who it was, but you had your suspicions.  If you needed the phone for an emergency and a chatty neighbor was on, you had to break into their call and ask if you could use the line.  There was never a problem; emergencies in a farm community were sacrosanct.  Our town had its own operator, Pearl, and all calls went through the switchboard which was in her house.  I was in her house once.  It was on a desk.  It was the size of a large flat screen TV and had all those retractable cords to plug in and she wore a headset.  This represented quite a commitment on her part.  Not that much happened after supper, but there were those emergencies.  While it wasn’t part of her job, she would pass on information.  If my aunt called from California, Pearl would let her know we were at the ballgame.  At our house we had a desktop phone like you see in old movies.  It stood up right and the top was a cone shaped piece you would speak into; the ear piece, about the size of a pestle, attached by a cord, hung from a u-shaped hook off the side.  You held the stand in one hand and the ear piece in the other…like Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.  To make a call you picked up the ear piece to open the line and then cranked this handle on a wooden box…that got Pearl’s attention at the switchboard.  Then you would ask her, kindly, to connect you with the Hoys or the Rooneys.  If you were making an out of area call you had to give her the number.  Madison 8-4594.  Well, I get a head of myself.  When we first moved to the farm, our phone numbers had 4 digits.  9113, I think was ours.  Folks in the cities had the exchanges.  In the early 60’s we got the upgrade in our area.  The squat black rotary dial phone and a new number with an exchange.  I don’t recall our new number, but I believe it was Madison, or MA.  MA 8-4594.  Like the movie, Butterfield 8.  (Elizabeth Taylor, Lawrence Harvey and Eddie Fisher.  1960.)  Not sure what happened to Pearl.  Expect she may have been relieved not to have that buzzing, ringing octopus, 24-7, in her living room anymore.
I left New York City in 1991 and met my Darling shortly after.  We were living in Portland in 1998, the year I turned 50.  She threw me the most remarkable celebration which included, on the morning of my birthday, our 5 year-old Kid coming out at breakfast dressed as the Statue of Liberty and presenting me with three airline tickets to New York City.  We had a grand time on that visit.  Within ten minutes of being on the street the first morning in Soho near where I used to live and work, I bumped into 2 dear pals, one right after the other.  The city was pretty much as I had left it, except every fifth person on the side walk had a cell phone to their ear.  Now, of course, they’re as common as shoes.  Gradually, over the years, payphones (10 cents a go in 1970 and 35 when I left), which were on every corner, in every restaurant, hotel or office building lobby, vanished.  Recently, I was told the famous red phone booths of London are being taken out.

The other evening, I stopped for gas on my way home.  I have seen warnings on pumps not to use cell phones as the static electricity from a ring can spark the fumes.  I don’t believe it, but I usually leave the phone in the car when I gas up.  Just as I am pumping, I look at my driver’s-side door and see the lock is down…somehow, I managed to lock myself out of the car with keys and the phone inside.

Yikes.  Lo.

Just beyond a parking area where odd people skulk are two freestanding payphones.  (50 cents, these days.)  One ate my money, the other worked normally, but was really sticky and icky.

As I stood around the gas station, waiting for my Darling to drive in with the extra set of keys, I washed the windows of my Jeep…twice…and called back to my early days in NYC where I could walk in the park or along a busy street, or see a movie, and be alone, out of reach, untouchable, for as long as I wished.

Anon, James

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Birth of the Cool

Here it comes.  No, it’s here.  The morning darknesses.  The tardy risings of the sun, the sweaters, the stews, the moods, the torpid rhythms of the latter two seasons suit some of us more than others.  I feel better in long pants than short; more at home in a felt fedora, less so in a baseball cap.  (Oddly, this is the season when baseball heats up.)  In a Würzburg hotel, in a far and new November, a white room, with gray skies beyond the windows, a feather bed and a comforter of down, thick as a batt of insulation, made supine - divine.  I have never traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, but it sticks as odd that folks in Sydney are about to bask in more direct rays of the sun, while we will take hard ‘nox.  I’ve spent a white-hot Christmas in Southern California, as well in Florida, made winter trips to the Caribbean, but to live an ordinary life where you’re sweaty in December?  Topsy-turvy.

Is anything, even politics in an election year, as universally talked about as weather?  How the world would grind if a moratorium was enforced and no one anywhere during any conversation was allowed to mention weather?  Try it.  An “I-will-not-talk-about-the-weather-today-day.”  A Mesopotamians, many Mayans, and a lot of Longshans, would have earnestly chatted to decide what should be a priority concerning their crops and preparations to deal with seasons.  I’m sure they would have had a sensual awareness of, say, when weather felt pleasant, but did each conversation around the water hole start off, “Il fait beau, ma chère amie!”  Indubitably, the first course served up in every diner, café, trattoria, rathskeller, noodle house, or pub is cold snaps and heat waves.  It’s became part of our humanist litany to talk about crappy weather.  “Hot enough for ya?”  Well, it is summer.  “Cold enough for ya?”  For chrissake.  “Ain’t No Sunshine” to “Singin in the Rain”, are among some two hundred songs about weather, at least, metaphorically.

People move because of the weather.  We did.  Portland, OR to Santa Fe, NM.  It wasn’t the only factor, but it was big.  (I maintain, if weather in Portland was like it is from July through mid-September - when it’s Shangri La -  for 10 months of the year rather than 10 weeks, they would have a population of 6 million not 600,000.)  It isn’t that the rain is all that frequent, but the grayness is.  People talk about “sun breaks”, like smoke breaks.  Portlanders will stop whatever they’re doing and walk outside when the sun occasionally cracks through.  But, they're tough…you don’t see as many umbrellas as you might think, or see them run to get out of the rain.  (I read once, that you will get wetter if you run in rain, because you speed through more of the drops.)  It stays light late in the Northwest near the summer solstice, but early in the winter from 4PM to 8AM you need lights.  Now, I’m doing it.  Honestly, the weather there, anywhere, has never bothered me, never been a major entity in my life.  I kvetch about a lot of other things, believe-you-me, just not the weather.  Weather is to seasons as commercials are to television.  We talk about them a lot, they interrupt, are annoying or fun, and frequently, in your face.  There are some places that don’t have seasons.  It’s peculiar, like people without eyelashes.

The weather can’t be stopped any more than the talk about it.  It’s easy palaver.  Is it too idle?  Do we use the subject to audibly fill the interstices of quiet, when we might be better off listening?  What about taking in the sounds of weather - the wind, the rain - or the hum of civil society, privately absorbing what stirs around us, as if it nourishes.  Then, if we are bursting to make a pronouncement, could it come, enriched, from such digestion?

“Hot enough for ya?”

“My Mother loved the heat, the way the sun made the sheets smell hanging on the line.”

Anon, James