Hand-Wrighting

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.







Sunday, November 28, 2010

Duet

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

Whack-a-Mole

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

Bent

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 clich√©, 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 Berg√®re.

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.

Anon.

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.