My childhood fear of the dark was monumental. Before the lights went out, I would carefully straighten my blankets, perfectly align the fold of the top sheet, place both arms under the covers and, from inside, tuck the top sheet tight under my neck so nothing could find a looseness to intrude.
What did I think would get in? I never pictured anything… it was just idea, which probably made it worse.
Some nights I would realize I had forgotten to sequester my stuffed animal in with me. In my zeal to clang shut the fortress of my sheet, I had left it alone on the blanket. For minutes I would screw up my courage, then lash out with octopus tentacle, grab the mock beastie and pull it in.
My stuffed animals were part friend, part comfort, part talisman, protecting me from the unnamed “other” that must not enter. I had started with four or five, maybe half a dozen. By the time I relinquished their protection, some time in my early teens, I had accumulated 15 or more.
The originals included a dirty and tactilely uncomfortable giraffe, a stuffed beige horse with a printed-on brown saddle and stirrups, a small teddy bear missing patches of fur, a real stuffed koala (I had no environmental pity in those days), and a cracked, flaking rubber pig – not stuffed but hollow – with painted blue shorts and red top. Brother Rod named the pig “The Boohoo” because when you squeezed it, it expelled a rubbery stink of air through a tiny whistle in its foot that sounded much like a baby’s cry.
The horse met a sad fate. About age six, the whole family, myself included, decided that horsey was beyond salvation; it was time for the last roundup. Dad was burning leaves in the back yard at Hastings Ave. and he (or I) added the horse to the tiny conflagration. That was OK – it worked for Vikings. But Dad poked the fire with a stick, hit the horse, and it broke just forward of the painted saddle. Some little thing in me broke too – I had allowed a terminally maimed friend to be broken like a heretic after serving me without complaint.
Rod was gifter of most of the more interesting additions to my stuffed collection. The ones I remember most fondly are a grizzly bear and a platypus with one webbed foot sewed on upsidedown.
Mom hand-sewed at least one – a snake, brown on top, yellow on the bottom with green sequin eyes. It was tightly stuffed and shouldn’t have been that pleasant to hold, but it was weirdly comforting nestled between my bent forearm and my neck. Either she or Rod gave me a penguin with moveable arms (flippers, wings – what should they be called?).
I slept with each of these animals in rotation. I would search through the big floppy bag beside my bed to find the night’s designated attendant to join me on the road to sleep. When I would forget who had graced my bed the previous night, I would veer close to panic. Were I to pick the wrong companion for the night, how would the overlooked rightful evening-owner feel?
What made me feel I was betraying a simulacrum? I suppose children do that, and I shouldn’t look back with such disdain on my small, quailing self. But the encapsulated child in me (probably in many of you) still worries that I have slighted the dog when parceling out pan lickings.
(What? You don’t let your dogs lick pans? What the hell’s wrong with you?)
* * * *
An aside: Daughter Caitlin, now living in upstate New York, where she’s constructing a “tiny house” studio (12 x 12 feet) for her burgeoning stop-motion animation business, has started a fundraising campaign to buy solar panels to provide electricity in her off-the-grid woodland site, along with batteries to keep it operative on cloudy or otherwise uncooperative days (of which there are many that far north). Should you find yourself inclined to support such an obviously environmentally sound and artistic endeavor, you can drop a penny or two in her jar: https://gofund.me/e446e758.
For all my attention to 130 Hastings Ave., the house itself wasn’t the Place; the Place embraced the yard, the street and the creek. The three-block stretch of Hastings Ave. and the (at most) quarter-mile trail through the woods set the tone for what existence should be – because existence, then, should exclude the intrusion of people.
During the war, we had two vegetable gardens out back, and though I was as much a carnivore then as now – rhubarb is like snot but less pleasant – fresh peas and string beans were a treat, even when served up by my mother, the maternal epitome of wretched cooking. (Her Boston baked beans would have defeated the British singlehandedly, and her perloo – a Spanish-rice muck that lurked in the bottom of a simmering pot for four hours – wept at its own fate when served).
Along with the gardens, Mom spent much time weeding the lawn and tormenting our many bushes and shrubs.
A barberry hedge ran across the entire front, which spanned two lots. Most neighbors had privet hedges, which don’t say or do much. A barberry, though, grows wicked thorns and small red berries. Mom hacked and tooled the hedge into a boxy shape but developed a wicked allergy to it. At night she kept her hands wrapped in gingham cloth mittens, soaking in bowls of liquid. Looking back, I wonder if it was an actual “condition” or a weird affectation.
After the war, she grassed over the main garden area, leaving a four-inch-deep depression in back, the width and half the depth of the house, and we switched to canned vegetables. In case you’ve heard rumors that there may exist something less palatable than 1940s canned vegetables, don’t believe it for a second.
But the fruit trees…. wonderful.
The cherry grew on the left side of the house, and brother Vic, intrepid hero, would harvest the fruit from the porch roof outside his bedroom. (I, by contrast, had such an absurd fear of heights that I got vertigo looking down from a first-floor window.)
The apple, squat and imposing, grew at the very back of the yard and produced scrumptious fruit. Between it and a steel pole hung Rod’s rope Navy hammock, fun to lie in, though the least wiggle dumped you unceremoniously on the ground.
(Rod later told me we had a pear, tree though I can’t recall it.)
Mom, oddly, was good at desserts. She made excellent pies – cherry and apple – plus a luscious custard that I can still taste, over 70 years later. The kitchen seemed a magical place of process, with its odd assortment of small hand-machines: a simple two-inch pincer for grasping and wrenching loose the green attachment of a strawberry; a manual egg beater with a circular collar between the rotary handle and the beaters, that fit snugly onto a flat-bottomed translucent blue-glass bowl with inclined sides; and, especially, a small table-clamped metal contraption with interchangeable rollers.
When outfitted with two rubber rollers, it grasped the stringy terminus of a pea-pod, forcing open the opposite end and shooting pea artillery into a bowl. Exchange one roller for a cylinder of parallel knife-blades and it julienned the hell out of green beans (I first heard the term “julienne” thirty years later; I still hate its French snootiness).
In the summer, I loved to mow the yard, as much as my six-year-old self could, with our clunky hand mower. I must have been a peculiar sight – short, lugubriously skinny, almost albino and wearing glasses with squared-off black tape on the lenses to channel my vision – huffing and puffing a machine twice as big and weighty as myself.
A special note on our willow tree: There’s nothing more beautiful in all creation than a weeping willow, and I doubt I’ll see a more magnificent one than ours, dominating the expansive side yard. Today, if you look up “130 Hastings Ave. Havertown PA” on Google street view (please don’t), you will be presented with a house that replaced that willow, while my 130, in its shrunken domain, has been demoted to 128.
Willows slurp up huge quantities of water – we had the driest basement on our block – and I sincerely wish the cellar of today’s 130 awash in lethal sewage.
But beyond anything else, growing or otherwise, rested the ineffable joy of summer – a succulent, unquestioning enfoldingness that, were the universe properly ordered, would obliterate all other seasons. The sun, the heat, the sense of endless nothing-to-do, of no-one-to-tell-you-want-is-expected: Catching lightning bugs (“fireflies”? feh!) and incarcerating them in a jar with a perforated lid, their stale, musky odor wafting from my fingers. The rash rasping shudder of a cicada – all the music the spheres could invoke. I’ve felt intensely lonely much of my life. But those summers were a time of serene, accepting aloneness.
My few acquaintances ranged from goofy-uninteresting to just-plain-mean. Charley, a year younger than me, rode his trike along the sidewalk. It was his most interesting activity. Donald, from the next block over, called shit “grunty,” which about sums him up.
The boy I spent the most time with (name? lost) probably evolved into a small-time hood, but at least he was brighter than Charley or Donald. Our “friendship” was broken off by Mom after he accepted my dare to piss on my leg in the woods.
Previous to that, he had cut a hole in the side of a refrigerator box in his back yard to create a neat hideaway. One day, a slightly older, preternaturally nasty girl named Barbara, seconded by her bespectacled female lieutenant, held Charley and me prisoner in the box, a humiliating experience. When I broke free and ran home, my mother handed me a broom and ordered me to go back and threaten retaliation. I did, in a frightened, half-hearted way, resulting in a pointless standoff.
(I view the 1940s as a low point in American music. Even as a kid, I actively disliked big bands, with special animus directed at Tommy Dorsey. We had no phonograph in those days of 78s, but the radio pumped out insipid crooners (Vic Damone – good god!), patriotic ditties, light novelty songs and Broadway show tunes (another grey area for me). Though my passion for summer was built at Hastings Ave., not so my passion for music.)
There was nothing wrong with the Oakmont public school on Eagle Road, but it was the seat of the unholy terror of school constantly nipping at my drawers. I remember almost nothing of my classes there, but I can see the maypole we actually danced around, and I loved watching the sky-writers who enlivened almost every celebration in the days before jet contrails made them obsolete.
A teacher at Oakmont, Skipper Dawes, ran a daily dinner-time radio show, “The Magic Lady,” that featured bits of a continuing story and young singer/actors. One was Eddie Fisher, who grew up to sing “Oh Mein Papa”, marry Debbie Reynolds and Liz Taylor, and become an all-time celebrity jerk.
I enjoyed remarkably few foods as a kid. I hated all nuts, ketchup, mayonnaise and marshmallows. I hated scrapple with such passion that I would slather it with ketchup because anything was better than scrapple. I disliked onions, most fish, dry cereals except Kix and (oddly) Grape Nuts, and would have created a special circle of hell for shredded wheat. Oatmeal, as Dr. Johnson suggested in his dictionary, should be fed to horses. Wheatena was invented by the Turks in an early attempt to exterminate Armenians.
Milk held a special horror. In those pre-homogenized days, little mucus-like blobs of cream would float around the top of the glass and slime my tongue. Left too long in in the sun, it formed a stinking funereal scum. Was I forced to drink this cow excrescence, or did I simply never complain because any complaint about food was improper in our family?
Dad, as the morning cook, firmly believed in big breakfasts. When I was spared cereal, he made wonderful soft boiled eggs, toast with butter and strawberry jam, but under the dread of school, my stomach was in no mood to accept or even recognize morning nourishment. I often threw up in the sink before leaving for educational oblivion.
On Sundays, Dad made Bisquick waffles or corn fritters for late breakfast (“brunch” was an unknown term). He cooked the waffles in a wonderful old round waffle iron (I greeted the advent of square irons with shouts of “Heresy!”). Using the same simple ingredients, I’ve never been able to match them. The fritters were heavy pancake batter chock full of corn, fried in deep bacon fat until they fluffed and oozed. (Fuck my arteries – I wouldn’t mind lopping a few years off my life for a return of those babes.)
A bakery somewhere along Eagle Rd. (the corridor to everywhere) made luxurious sticky buns, and a shop in Manoa (which sounds like a cow plop) produced “submarine sandwiches” that could face down most any hoagie today.
I’m not looking for understanding with this nostalgia binge, because at some level there’s nothing to be understood. It is just a slow unfolding, an examination, the me-that-is intrigued by the me-that-was.
Why should that address loom so important to me?
Maybe because what happens to anyone during ages three to six is central to life. Psychologists seem to think so. Or maybe because it was the only place that felt like “home” to me until Linda and I came to Sullivan County in 2000.
In the mid-1940s, my family moved from the Long Island town of Port Washington (then a nothing-much, now a posh-something) to South Ardmore (now Havertown), a western suburb of Philly. After typing what Mom claimed was 350 letters to realtors in search of a place during World War II (why we needed to move was never clear), she secured rental of a two-story house on a quarter acre of land – a plot figure that’s always stuck with me for some reason.
Nominally suburban, the neighborhood was closer to rural. Through an undeveloped block overwhelmed by blackberry bushes, my brothers and I would traipse to the end of Hastings Ave. and enter the woods leading to Cobbs Creek – which, of course, I considered the Most Important Stream in the World. (It was the only body of water in which I have ever attempted to fish. I caught nothing.)
130 was partially fronted by a porch that elled around the left side. The rest of the first floor was shingled in wood, painted or stained green. The second floor was stuccoed.
You entered a square hall, where, for whatever reason, the phone resided – one of those old models where the receiver hung separately from a hook. The stairs to the second floor ran along the left wall, turned at a landing, then scooted up the rear.
The living room opened to the right, through a wide doorway (sliding doors? possibly). The radiators sat trapped inside rounded metal enclosures painted white; diagonal gridwork let the heat seep out. Bracketing the radiators, snakeplants speared their yellow-edged leaves from water-encrusted, white, chipped ceramic pots with a molded leaf design. You could sit on a red horsehair couch that assaulted your legs with pinprick stickers. White organdy curtains framed the windows; they stank of ancient dust.
The walls hosted the neatly framed drawings of flowers that followed us everywhere, drawings so sad and uninterested in themselves they might have been commenting on the death of a weed relative. They were simply What We Had – which is what I assumed everyone had.
Behind the living room, but reached directly from the hall, the dining room waited patiently through 90% of the day for someone to make use of it. From there, you entered the kitchen through a swinging door. Listen attentively: Anyone who has not enjoyed a swinging door has missed one of life’s grand pleasures. A swinging door opens in either direction at the gentle push of a hand – then returns to the neutral closed position of its own volition! If only the rest of existence worked so dependably.
Two bedrooms lined each side of the upstairs hallway. Mine was on the left front and shared with Rod when he was home from the Navy. Next to mine, looking over the side porch, was brother Vic’s room. Vic was then in high school.
Mom had the room across the hall from mine. Next to hers was what had to have been Dad’s room, though, like so many things of Dad’s, it’s largely a blank. He never slept in the same room with Mom. I don’t think he ever entered hers.
The attic, gloomy under unfinished rafters, sheltered Mom’s trunks and a pair of wall-mounted pull-weights for strengthening the arms, installed by the former owner, Mr. Quirk. It also held (in my mind) the ghost of Mr. Quirk, who had fallen to his death from a ladder mounted against the house. Strange, then, that I set up a chalkboard there, mounted on an easel, though I had no artistic ability and a shuddering fear of ghosts.
Of the basement I recall only the time Rod’s water snake pupped (or whatever snakes do to produce young), leaving the area overrun (overwiggled) with itty-bitty snakelets. Though frightened of almost everything in the human world, I was content, even serene, around snakes.
Why spend so much time on the layout of a house? Because Place has always, always been vitally important to me.
I slept under dark blue blankets with a top border of red lines and white stars. Today I realize they were threadbare – ancient or merely cheap. I suppose the room was cold; in winter, Dad would made up a hot water bottle for me – a half-gallon wine jug to rest my feet against.
My repulsive pre-sleep habit was to spit on the bottoms of my feet to liquefy the accumulated dirt, them stamp them against the striped wallpaper under the window next to my bed. It made a shitful mess. The day I learned that landlady Mrs. Quirk was coming to visit and presumably inspect the place, I shivered with panic that she would call me out for this abomination of her house. Of course, she said nothing; I never even met the woman.
* * * *
Conspiracy theory of the day: Opening our latest vitamin bottle, I noted (as always) that it accounts for 6 pieces of trash, including both an inner and outer lid seal. Soooo… what if the Tylenol attack in Chicago that brought this on was planned not to kill some random back-pain sufferer, but was instead a clever ploy by the packaging industry?
Someone is making a killing on those billions of superfluous bits of plastic and foil.
This is one of those pieces that will probably bore you silly, another of my obsessions.
Give it a chance.
Modern society is built on waste. It’s not an accidental byproduct of consumer life but deliberately inserted to assure that anything we buy – any process that we undertake – will include unnecessary elements designed to make their creators profit at your expense of time, energy and money.
Waste has been endemic throughout history (look at the discovery of Troy, several levels down in a Turkish midden), but it’s mostly been a byproduct of time and circumstance. By contrast, today’s insertion of the worthless – stemming from the Industrial Revolution – has exploded into entire industries that provide only material for our external and internal landfills.
- • You need hinges to hang your door. Once, you plucked them from a bin marked “hinges” at the hardware store. Now they come packaged in pairs, with cardboard backing, plastic front and a tightly folded piece of paper of minute, indecipherable instructions on how to install said hinge. If you’re putting up a heavy door, you need three hinges. So you’re forced to buy two packets of two; the fourth hinge lies in your junk drawer gathering dust and rust; the packaging goes in the trash.
- • I ordered chicken with dirty rice and a soda at Popeyes (despite what follows, I’d suggest anyone do the same: This is some of the best fast food on earth). For the hell of it, I counted the number of trash items produced by that simple meal. Including the disposable tray doily, the paper cup, the straw, the straw wrapper, the plate, the fork, the spoon, and whateverthehell else: 13 bits of trash.
- • Bottled water: You buy a free item (water), sequestered in a plastic bottle, which you heave. So you’ve paid $1+ for the privilege of disposing of a piece of trash. You’ve also wasted a resource (the hydrocarbons used to make the plastic), your money, and the time, energy and money spent to dispose of a piece of junk.
- • No one repairs anything electronic today. Instead, your un-upgraded computer is sent to a Chinese village where it’s beaten with hammers and twisted with pliers to remove precious metals. The rest is lung-invading toxic dust.
- • Register receipts. You can’t buy a bottle of dish detergent without getting a forearm’s length of curling paper that tells you a) how much you’ve saved by presenting the “discount” card that every single patron carries as wallet trash, and b) how much more you can save by buying items you don’t want on a specific day when you won’t be shopping in that store.
- • While whole continents try to deal with starvation, we turn half our corn crop into ethanol to feed our cars. An astonishing waste of food – and intelligence.
- • Medical forms. Before any procedure, you sign next to the X. In theory, these scribbles protect your rights, your privacy and your access to information. In fact, 99.9% of us never read a dammed one of these things or have the least idea what advantage they procure. Picking up a prescription, I once remarked to the pharmacy clerk, “I wonder if I just signed myself into slavery?”
- • You buy a bottle of 100 aspirin. The bottle is crammed inside a cardboard container that you wrestle open so you can throw it away. The bottle has a plastic cap with both an external clear plastic seal and an internal cardboard seal. Inside the jar rattles a desiccant to keep dry a substance that will get wet only if your house floods – plus a wad of cotton to fill up the bottle that’s made double size to convince you you’ve bought twice as many aspirin as you receive. So, three relatively necessary waste items: bottle and cap and seal. Four unnecessary items: second seal, cotton, desiccant, outer box.
- • The oil, gas and coal underlying our rolling hills and shifting deserts took roughly 65 million years to accumulate. We’ve blasted, tunneled, drilled and syphoned most of it in under 200 years. My home sits atop the Marcellus Shale, the largest deposit of natural gas yet uncovered in the U.S. These gas reserves give us a chance to stick our heads in the sand for another 50 years while we devour what’s left of dinosaur shit and decayed ferns from the Cretaceous.
Examples of self-selected waste:
- • We’re invited to a dinner served on paper plates. Why? It takes no longer to wash real dishes than to bag and dispose of their po’ boy cousins – and food just tastes better on real plates. You know that. You’re served a packet with a plastic knife, fork and spoon incarcerated in a plastic wrapping. After you’ve used the fork and knife, you throw them and the unused spoon, along with the plastic wrapper, in the trash.
- • Many folks buy a single item at the store and expect a useless plastic bag to put it in –even a gallon milk bottle with a built-in carrying handle. The cashier will look startled if you say no to the bag. Their hands grip reflexively in that “stuff it in” motion.
- • If you own a dishwasher, you’ve bought an extra set of dishes because you never know what’s dirty, what’s clean or where most of your plates are hiding. (I don’t own a dish washer, can process my dishes in the sink faster than a dishwasher, and always know where my plates are – they’re either in the drainer or in the cabinet.)
- • Peeling vegetables: How did this become a basic approach to food? Fear of dirt? Aesthetic assumptions – mashed potatoes must glow white and creamy? Much of vegetables nutrition lies in or just beneath their skin. Removing it tosses half your food value. I’ve made mashed potatoes with the skin on for 40 years. Haven’t skinned a carrot in a couple decades. Ginger? East Indians don’t scrape it. (No, I don’t eat shrimp with the shells on – c’mon.)
Another interesting (if absurd) statistic:
At home, we recycle our food garbage by heaving atop our garden. And, every evening, after washing the dishes, when the water drains, I dump the tiny collection of scraps from the sink drain collection basket into the counter-side compost tray – half an once, maybe.
Here it is: Collecting that half-once every day adds up to 182 ounces – 11.4 pounds – a year. Now… if every one of the country’s estimated 126 million households would salvage that almost minuscule amount of organic matter every day… it would amount to 718,00 tons annually.
No, I’m not plumping for everyone, everywhere to clean their sink drains. It’s just an extended example to exuberantly show that many a mickle makes a muckle. And, oh, are we muckled.
Americans, left or right, wonder why the country is going down the tubes. In part it’s because our collective mind is going down the tubes. We chug along our little tracks, social automatons in search of the perfect snack, perfectly preserved, perfectly reproducible, perfectly bland, perfectly wrapped in pure plastic for us to toss in the trash can.
Does life get any better than this?
Let’s hope so.
This ramble started from reading an article on “Concrete Cowboy,” a Netflix movie about a Black urban horse-riding group in Philadelphia (starring Idris Elba, who’s always fun – which reminds me, if you ever get the chance, see “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), with Elba as supporting actor and the utterly stunning Abraham Attah, age 14, looking about 9, the star, about child soldiers in Africa).
Apparently, Black “urban cowboys” is a phenomenon in many American cities. That article, in turn, pointed me to a youtube short on the origin of the term “cowboy,” which started as a term for Black cowhands, then somehow spread wider. That story is fascinating. See it here:
Part of what follows is a repeat from an earlier piece, but with copious additions to keep you awake.
I moved with my parents to Powelton Village in Philly in 1947, a Victorian enclave across the Schuylkill River from the Art Museum. At that time and into the early ’50s, a lot of stuff was delivered by horse and cart – including the mail to some of the narrow alleys down by the Delaware River.
Aristocrat Ice Cream had neat wagons. Can’t remember most of the other commercial outfits (maybe Abbott Dairy), but at least until the 1951 city charter broke the 64-year Republican stranglehold on city government that had led to slow strangulation, our West Philly trash was collected by horse and cart.
A line of carts trotted along, each an open metal cube with stout rings sticking up from its four corners. Some form of recycling was still in effect from WWII: One cart would take cans, the next glass, etc. (No idea when or why that recycling ceased.) The last cart was followed by a shambling fellow with a shovel, who heaved the accumulated horse droppings up into the cart. Over on Lancaster Ave., a mobile crane would hook onto the corner rings to dump each cart into an open truck.
Food garbage was collected separately. You set your little can out by the curb, and a cart from one pig farmer or another who collect it for hog food. (Sounds like an excellent environmental cycle. It was, for the pigs, I suppose, but, unregulated, it was also a major source of the continuing bouts of trichinosis circulating through the nation’s pork supply.)
Today, I still delight to the smell of horseshit.
Another unlikelihood of the time was the Curtis Publishing electric trucks. Yes, electric – each fueled by 45 car batteries secreted under the truck’s floor planks.
Boxy but oddly elegant, they crawled along the downtown streets at a maximum 12 mph, hauling massive rolls of paper to print the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal, or taking the finished mags to the post office. These beasts, dating back to 1912, are still running here and there around the country, long after Curtis and the Post folded. Nice article on them at:
Odd times to look back on, when philthy Philly died at 5 pm and had no restaurants worth the bother except in Chinatown, where they were also the only places you could get a meal out on a Sunday night.
* * * *
Some total nonsense (set to the old spiritual, “Twelve Gates to the City”):
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Four legs to the kitty
There’s two legs in the front,
Two legs in the back,
Two legs to the left,
Two legs to the right,
Four legs to the kitty
* * * *
Happy Easter! And remember to celebrate the resurrection of a Jew with a big ham.
One: A study explaining that some rapidly moving objects in the skies, sighted by US pilots and others, cannot be adequately explained given our current knowledge of atmospheric objects and conditions.
Two: A report that recent studies of B-meson decay at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland (OK, I have to stop here and admit that I always read it as the Large Hardon Collider) show a breakdown rate of B mesons into muons and electrons that defies the bedrock standard model of particle physics.
My take on both reports is that they reflect a similar situation: that, along the outer edges of science, we don’t know enough to make even temporarily definitive statements – and that therefore we should stop making them.
Two other recent (and somewhat similar) examples:
One: That lightning may have created a phosphorus compound necessary to the beginnings of life on earth (specifically, to the forming of RNA). Previously, it had been assumed that this specific compound of phosphorus could only have resulted from a barrage of meteorites. Yet… previous to that (over 50 years back), it had been assumed that lighting was a determinate in creating planetary life.
Two: That a significant quantity of water is encapsulated in free-scooting solar-system rocks. Again, previously it had been thought it could only have been deposited on Earth by a barrage of icy comets.
Think about it (from both findings): Life on our wayward planet goes back billions of years. Whatever the level of scientific knowledge at the time – why would anyone assume that the most essential elements of life came from “out there”?
That never sat well with me, and I’d been waiting for such akilter ideas to be upset. It’s not that I believe there was no influence on the early solar system from outside, but that it seems absurd to downgrade the planet we live on – to assume we’re a form of uninteresting cosmic debris that got shat on by passing strangers.
- * * *
A side comment that has nothing whatsoever to do with the above – or anything else.
Tonight I picked up one of Linda’s pottery pieces from the kitchen drying rack – one of her larger bowls that we use for salads, and one of my all-time favorites – to find two pieces broken from the rim.
I’d been expecting this, because the same pieces had broken how many years ago, and I’d glued them back with Duco cement and hope. Every time I’ve picked that bowl up, whether to fill it or wash it, I’ve tried to grip it from from the far side, so as not to stress the break line.
I’m ready to glue the pieces back again (found them lying quietly under the drying rack), but first I want to try to explain something I’m not sure I can put into comprehensible words.
Linda does a kind of figurative pottery I’ve never seen anywhere else. There’s a lot I haven’t seen (and a lot more I don’t give a shit about), but it’s a delicate tracery of flowers and small animals, lizards and the like, that she inscribes with tiny brushes onto the surface of bisqued clay that she then coats with a clear glaze. They’re like a child’s imaginings grown tall.
And here’s what came next in my thought: Linda and I were drawn together in part because of being different from the run of humanity. Yet there are a lot of people whom I see as “different” that I don’t give a damn about. So what is the real difference?
I think it’s that we are different in the same way. I look at her pots and I look at my writing (especially, Evolution Unfolding in a Small Town in Western Pennsylvania), and I see them as somehow alike, but not what anyone else would consider doing.
We’re also alike in not having promoted what we think we and our work is worth. How much art (or near art) goes into the planetary dustbin because no one sees it – or so few that it becomes a near-figment at the corner of the social eye. And much of that results from the lack of promotion its creators can’t be bothered with.
Linda’s pottery should be on every dining table of the rich and powerful.
Except… those fuckers don’t deserve it.
in mostly roughly chronological order:
B. Kliban (death 1990, age 55), best known for his half-insane drawings of cats, but who also produced an array of fully insane cartoon drawings that make no sense whatsoever, but make it in such a way that they leave you shrieking with the kind of laughter that makes anyone listening think you’ve just been informed of the death of your worst enemy.
We’ve been getting Kliban’s recycled single panels every day (except Sunday), along with other cartoons from gocomics.com, for over a decade, and that time there has been only one repeat that I’m aware of – this, from a dead author.
I know he put out a few books, but there must also be a hidden treasure treasure-trove of his material that he churned out, day after day and probably chucked in various desk drawers, all of it formed by a mind that could juxtapose any two concepts, no matter how unlikely the match. Some of his stuff seems impossible that any human being could come up with, as though the unconscious of the entire universe has been tapped and put to use.
Judy Roderick (1992, age 49), the best white blues singer I’ve ever heard. Her early ’60s album, Woman Blue, is the closest thing to total musical perfection I own – each song perfectly realized, the entire record immaculately constructed. Her first album, Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, is excellent also, and her much later albums of merged Western swing and blues are fine. But for any one of us to have produced a single artistic effort in our lives like Woman Blue – pretty damned unlikely.
[You can get it on CD or mp3, but with 4 songs added. Each of the additions is fine in and of itself, but it’s the usual mistake with CD reissues. It ignores the superb balance of the original. Don’t fuck with perfection, guys.]
Ralph Rinzler (1994, a few days short of age 60). Rinzler was the mandolinist in the iconic trio of the Greebriar Boys in the 1960s. Most of the attention paid to this marvelous bluegrass band went to lead-singer and guitarist John Herald or the prize-winning banjo work of Bob Yellin, but watching them live, I felt that Rinzler’s understated musical line may have been the cement that held it all together. And though he seldom sang, I loved his smothered-gravel voice.
He left the band fairly early (before their last album) to follow his first love, folklore, by heading up the folk department at the Smithsonian, and the band disbanded in 1967, a fairly sort-lived but stunning stint.
John Herald (2005, age 65). I’m stepping out of the chronological order here because the Greenbriars’ Herald committed suicide after too many years of being unable to form another solid, working band. I only saw one of those groups, and only once. It was a good enough knock-together outfit, with nothing like the dynamics of the Greenbriars.
Steven Holtzman (1999, age 43). Hard to imagine such a stunning, incisive mind gone at so early an age. I can’t recall how I came to buy his book, Digital Mantras, about music, sound and the call of the spiritual, but it left me happily wrung out (I don’t have a copy at the moment because I’ve twice given it away – that happens with all my favorite books).
He never sold himself as a Great Mind, but his offhand comment about being able to pick out the individual calls of crickets while sitting on a mountainside turned on my awe button right away. And I stink at musical theory, but his discussions of 12-tone and serial music almost made me understand that odd sound universe of the mid 20th century. He put out at least one other book which… I’ve been almost scared to pick up because what if it doesn’t have that same effect on me? (OK, I’ll buy it when I order my third copy of Digital Mantras).
Holtzman was also a composer. I wrote to him expressing an interest in his “tunes” that were determined by the internal racket of computer processing, and damned if he didn’t send me two of his CDs. He was that kind of mensch. Did I like the CDs? Well… not that much. But I treasure the fact of them.
Richard Thompson (2016, age 58), not the musician from Fairport Convention, but the creator of the comic strip “Cul de Sac,” still available online. Cul de Sac is the small-town home of the Otterloop family: rampaging 5-year-old Alice, who is half-loved but more feared by her classmates at Miss Bliss’s Blisshaven pre-school; 11-year-old Petey, who reads Little Neuro comics where nothing happens and reacts to adversity by trying to chew his arm off; father Peter, who sings duck songs; mother Madeline, who seems level-headed… until to listen to what she’s actually saying; the grandmother who covers the dining room table with old magazines and is owner of Big Shirley, the worlds largest dog (except for Clifford); and the half-insane kids at Blisshaven. Thompson died of Parkinson’s, having turned much of the last year’s production over to fellow cartoonists who tried to but couldn’t match his expressive yet minimalist style or the eruption of his volcanic mind.
Now, to more personal deaths…
Dave Liberman (1990s, age 50s), a roommate in the house on 34th St. in Philly where I lived in the mid-‘60s [you’ll hear much more about this place later, or if you were on the original ruminations list, you’ve already heard tales of The House]. A math genius, he was in his senior year at Penn when me met, came in first in his class while spending much of his life on his back in bed staring at the ceiling (assembling new math proofs, I guess). I was best man at his wedding. (The marriage went sour.) Visited him later while he was living in Boston or thereabouts, driving a taxi.
About a decade ago, I tried to track him down online. What I found was his funeral notice. I didn’t copy it (fool) and now can’t drag him our out from the proliferation of other David Libermans, or even get access to the Penn alumni site without some sort of token I haven’t the foggiest how to obtain. Dave was a gentle, delightful human being with an underlayment of intense anger. He could have been, should have been, almost anything. He became Dorsal in my novel No Bike.
Chris Hessert (2001, age 59?). I said enough about Chris earlier. He was equal amounts joy and cynicism. He was the only rich guy I know that I liked, because he really didn’t give a damn.
And finally, those who should never have died…
Joe and Mimi Colonna (Joe, 2016, age 74; Mimi, 2019, age 82). Yeah, they lived to decent ages, but once we came to know them we wanted them to stay forever. They owned the home down by the pond, and Joe was the best neighbor anyone could possibly have. He plowed up to our bridge when it snowed, invited us to all their barbecues with the old South Philly gang (he had taken over his father’s stone-mason outfit on Washington Ave. before himself retiring), and could be depended on for anything and everything that we might even hint at needing. Mimi was…South Philly to the core, which means loud, generous to a fault, funny, opinionated, with a bedrock sense of right and wrong.
More (much more, likely) about them at a later date.
Roddy Davis (2001, age 41, of heart attack), my brother Rod’s only child and the center of every family gathering, especially the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas bashes. Funny as hell, with a way of weaving his threads of humor into tapestries, he turned the point of these meals from the food to waiting for his jokes and impressions (especially of the pig that provided a boneless ham). Like too many of our family, he was alcoholic, racked up at least three cars, joined a Jews-for-Jesus outfit but had no quarrel with anyone’s belief system. He had terrible taste in women, intent on finding the most hopeless and trying to help them salvage their lives when, so often, they had no desire for such salvation. He and his father and mother were the most tightly bound trio I’ve known. A sterling human being for the ages.
Rod Davis (2009, age 84), my big brother, the elder of two big brothers. To continue the “salvation” shtick, I think Rod was the salvation of my empty childhood – though he was in the Navy during much of WWII. That I couldn’t love my parents was more my fault than theirs (if any fault involved, which I decline to believe), but I loved Rod, just did. He shepherded and protected me in ways I wasn’t aware of, effectively the Good Uncle – someone it was always a personal joy to be near. His end was heart failure, which I think will be mine. Now it isn’t so much that I miss him (at his funeral I said that there was nothing to regret in his life) as that I have question I want to ask him that no one alive can answer.
But that’s the way of it. Maybe it’s the real reason I’ve continually championed the cache of oral histories that Sullivan County has the immense good fortune to possess. I know what it’s like to lose that voice, that knowledge.
Whatever your outlook on the reality of climate change, global warning or the general deterioration of people and the place we live in, it’s obvious that humanity is paddling rapidly up shit’s creek.
The question for me: Is it mostly our doing, a side effect of chance, or the fore-ordained endpoint of evolution? And secondarily, if evolution, what exactly do I mean by evolution in this context?
Through SETI and other efforts, we’ve been listening for the telltale evidence of intelligent life for close to 60 years and have documented exactly zilch. The explanations for this empty-room resonance range from “We haven’t been looking long enough” to “We haven’t been looking widely enough” (only a tiny segment of the sky has been monitored) to “We might not recognize a truly alien broadcast” to “Maybe they’re intelligent enough to keep quiet” to “There just ain’t nobody there” (with its fundamentalist variant, “We’re all that matters; God just tacked up the rest of the universe for us to gaze at”).
I haven’t seen the following possibilities spelled out (though I’m sure they’re around).
First, maybe we’re just not properly aligned temporally. It took billions or years for the earth to coalesce, hundreds of millions to bring forth life. Our species has been around for only a couple hundred thousand years, has latched onto the electromagnetic spectrum only in the past two centuries, and has tried to reach the mythical others “out there” for the last half century. Maybe tomorrow (if we’re still around) we may a) give up the effort or b) discover a simpler, more direct method of contact.
So let’s turn that around and think about who might be broadcasting to us: First, they’d be doing so from thousands to billions of years in the past. What’s the chance that they would not only have reached our level of discovery back then, but that they would be broadcasting during exactly the right narrow time frame to interact with us, today? Or that we’d be able to pick up a broadcast diffused to near spectral invisibility? Or that we’d recognize it for what it was? Or the opposite possibility: that we’re johnny-come-latelies who have already been passed by. Whichever way, to receive cosmic evidence of buddies we’d have to be damned lucky spatially and temporally – and we’d also have to be paying close attention, not watching Netflix.
That’s one kind of possibility for our apparent lonesomeness in the big, indifferent universe. But lately I’ve come to wonder: What if life just doesn’t work? Not that it was intended other than the way it turned out – since I don’t believe in the Great Intender – but that life is inherently subject to failure. (I’m talking about organic life here; Linda likes to posit the possibility of life so totally alien that we would have no way to characterize it outside science fiction – and who’s to say that’s less likely than our cobbled chemical stew?)
Evolution on earth has been a horridly beautiful mess. Each individual is the behavioral result of a singular collection of synapses that remains throughout its life at war with its next-door-neighbor’s mass of synapses. Both individuals and species mutate randomly, become diseased or fail in their environment. And die.
Every living thing above a single-celled organism depends on eating some other living thing. Now, that doesn’t seem nice. It’s also inefficient and incompetent. But… so is everything on the cosmic level. Quantum particles wink in and out of existence. Stars create planets – their children – then eat them. Black holes gobble their neighbors. Galaxies collide and unleash a billion years of chaotic aftermath. And unless the current math is wrong, the entire universe will expand forever, pissing off into nothing.
Looked at this way, life is wholly consistent with physical law – and at the same time a rattle-trap, blundering sideshow. Like the rest of the universe as it races into oblivion, life will attenuate, diffuse, vanish. And with it, its absurd side-effect – our dithering sense of importance.
This week the snow is mystically gorgeous, the woodstove is providing joyous heat, the cat’s sleeping on the printer and has learned to forsake the litter box to shit outside, and we live in one of the last places on earth disaster is likely to strike. So I’m not meaning to complain. Just looking at the other side of the coin.
Holidays meant everything to me as a kid; I didn’t have that much else to cheer about. So far as I remember, no playmate visited me until we moved to Powelton in Philly (1947 or ’48). Even there, I was more apt to visit the girl who lived upstairs (Mary?) to watch Howdy Dowdy (damned stupid show) they had a TV, we didn’t. Unlikely connection: My dad was J.R. Davis. Hers was J.R. Davisson. Must have driven the mailman bats.
I memorized the birthday of everyone in the family, anticipating a special aura attached to each one – and often finding it. For my brother Rod’s 21st birthday, Mom encased his present in 21 wrappings, including our bathmat. At the center lay a box (no, a sock!) containing 21 silver dollars.
Sickly little dollop that I was, my first healthy birthday came at age nine, when we hosted my only childhood party. I remember nothing of it but the fact that it existed.
Christmas was a big, big, big deal. Our indoor decoration was little short of insane. We hauled out innumerable boxes of 3/8-inch-thick, dark red, twisted-crepe-paper ropes, each with little foil-covered papier mache bells on the ends. (How old were they? One of them came with a note inside that read “Happy crossing, Moses.”)
After spending hours each year repairing broken twists, we thumbtacked or map-pinned the garlands in elegant swoops across the living-room and dining-room walls, one below the other in decreasing arcs.
Brother Vic had been official decorator for many years. The title passed to me in my teens, and I took the idiocy to new heights. The longest paper rope, perhaps 20 feet, had previously been snaked, bell-less, around balustrades, but I attached a pair of those little silver bells to its ends and painstakingly multi-swooped it across the entire living room wall of our court-end house off 37th St..
We set up the tree about a week in advance of Christmas and decorated it with an unending supply of bright but uninteresting glass ornaments. I obsessively placed each ornament so that it did not repeat a neighbor in either shape or color. I would check the tree on all sides, from every angle, before adding the heavy lead tinsel (losing a dozen brain cells for each ponderous strip). We had no lights on the tree. Probably couldn’t afford them.
Finally, I set up my little metal figures on the library table under the tree. I took about a day and half to carefully position every farm and zoo beast, every last tradesman, train conductor, hobo and milkmaid. There was no such thing as enough.
The extended Davis family held Christmas dinner at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Frank’s in the suburbs. Aunt Ruth was a divorcee with three adult children from a previous marriage, all of them rather more pleasant than Aunt Ruth. She and Uncle Frank had one child together, Charles, a couple years older than me.
As the youngest of my generation, I felt even more out of place than I normally did, sitting quietly, wishing myself elsewhere or spending time in the basement watching Charles, a pompous shit, operate his electric trains. Later, I’d sit at the end of the U-shaped dinner table, served last with cold vegetables and dry, saliva-sapping turkey.
But my Christmas presents at home were bodaciously cool. My stocking would be stuffed solid with individually tissue-wrapped metal animals, followed by a silver dollar in the toe. And over the course of the years, I was given or inherited from my bothers every known form of construction set: Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, odd slotted composite disks that fit (poorly) into colored plastic tubes, Lincoln Logs, pre-Lego lock-togethers, a set of massive maple blocks and boards, and I don’t remember what else. If one piece could be attached to or placed upon another, we had it.
Lincoln Logs pissed me off (I don’t know why – they still do). I cut my fingers trying to screw together the little nuts and bolts of the Erector Set but loved it nonetheless. Tinkertoys, though – they were king. I didn’t want or need the optional motor: From a bunch of simple rods and wooden circles with holes evenly spaced around the circumference you could construct a functioning steam shovel. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the rest of the world worked that well?
Yet the strongest construction images I retain are of my personally designed and constructed matchstick log cabins, usually made during the summer. I have no idea what got me started on them in my early teens, how long this contained mania lasted, or why I’ve never done anything remotely like them again.
Each cabin grew atop a thin cardboard sheet taken from one of my father’s dress shirts. I lit each wooden kitchen match and blew it out (those were Smokey the Bear days), then severed its head with a small pocket knife. I glued alternating layers of matches in a square, framing windows and doorways as I went along, then forming a pitched roof.
What glue did I use? Probably mucilage, the weak but universal adhesive of the day. The bottle had an inclined rubber top with an exit slit not unlike that of a penis. It always clogged when it dried.
I carved and glued individual floorboards from the matches, also tables and chairs and a chimney above the roofline (though not below – an igloo-like construction). Finally, I scissored shingles roughly 1/2 inch on a side from brown paper bags and glued them to the rafters.
You can picture it, yes? No. Because, from laziness or personal peculiarity, I never notched the ends of the logs. I simply laid them one atop the other where they crossed at the corners, leaving a match-width open space between them on the sides. You could say I created log-cabin skeletons. I wish I had kept one, simply because they were so personal, so unlikely.
Years later, I got into making ever more elaborate Christmas presents for Julie and the kids. For awhile we had a ShopSmith, the only successful multi-use electric shop tool ever devised, serving equally well as table saw, lathe, sander, drill press and Swiss army knife.
After jig-sawing the outer rim off a circular oak dining table, I sanded its edges against the ShopSmith’s revolving disk, then set it on a vertical hexagonal plywood base painted alternately red and yellow around its six sides. (Not quite as kitsch as it might sound.)
I also built an interlocking collapsible plywood playhouse and Finnish-birch chairs for the kids – clever projects from the back of Women’s Day in its glory years.
About then I became obsessed with form. Made two clocks, one circular, with the same red/yellow alternation in its quarters and the “numbers” – unnumbered – etched as small circles with a sanding-disk drill bit. The other timepiece was a walnut plywood tetrahedron with the clockface on one side, the “numbers” simple painted triangles. None of my kids showed interest in either one.
Almost half a century after my kidhood, my lack of birthday parties was remedied seven-times over. Linda and Erin caught me out with surprise parties twice, on my 49th and 51st birthdays. The second was a particular doozy. Jim Knipfel and his friend the Grinch kept me occupied at Jim’s place for several hours with … well, pornography, then Jim walked innocent me back home. There I found damned near everyone I had ever known crowded into our friendly Baring St. kitchen.
Erin had let out that I was a deep, committed fan of Yukon Jack, Canada’s overpowering 100-proof blast of citrused whisky. That day I received 18 bottles of Yukon Jack. There are probably more wonderful things in the word, but …
No there aren’t.
In the late summer of 1964-65, I moved, for the first time in my life, into a solo apartment. At Penn, I’d lived with my parents, at Stanford in WW II Navy barracks rechristened “dorm” with walls so thin you could be awakened by a sneeze three chambers down, then short-term apartments back in Philly, then the House (oh, much more about the House, later on).
The solo apartment was on the third floor of a row house at the corner of 37th and Chestnut Sts. in West Philly, since replaced by almost featureless Penn grad dorms. Here, I was again no more than a mile from Powelton Village, where I’d grown up since age eight.
This was my Tolkien summer. I’d picked up the books early on, before they came out in paper, and walked the streets with The Hobbit hanging from my beltloop by a monstrous rubber band.
Since the building was on the corner, it had a loping fire escape that exited in a side area along 37th. I didn’t like the main entrance on Chestnut, which led through a vestibule (ridiculous word) and up a gloomy stairway. So my official ingress was up the fire escape, leading to the small concrete back porch with a single French door opening onto my bedroom/living room (this may be what the English call a bed-sit – I’ve never quite pictured one).
I ripped off the tattered screening that enclosed the porch. Above the railing between the head of the stairs and the door, I mounted a rough-framed self-portrait of Albrecht Durer – the one where he does himself up to look like Christ (though with an oddly lopsided mouth). I shone a small spotlight on it when I went out at night so Al was there to greet me when I rolled home.
The place had, at times, a magical aura. The day I moved in I set my turntable on the floor and put on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Helma Elsner on harpsichord. Never before or since has any single record sounded so fulfilling.
The apartment soon became home to the Gluttons Club. Joe from Tennessee and Dave were regulars; a few others drifted in an out. Dave was a Goldwaterite with a remarkable sense of humor for a rightist. We’d cook up fatty delights, eat until we moaned, toss the bones off the porch into the trash cans below, then lie in piles reading comic books.
Across 37th stood a gothic Presbyterian Church (complete with small cloister), since converted into a theater. We’d compete to see how far up the roof we could toss a penny from my window, which was open even in winter because of an excess of heat delivered by the thumping radiator. I’d often spend a quarter hour out on the porch looking down at its beautiful, peaceful architecture that seemed wonderfully removed from people. But back inside, alone, watching the sun set slowly behind the stern rigdeline of its roof often pushed me into deep despair. Another day gone, irretrievable.
The kitchen housed a 1917 Roper gas stove, white and green enamel, that rode proudly on three-foot legs. It had an early ignition system that I’ve never seen elsewhere: You pressed a round brass button on the front, between the burner knobs, and foot-long spears of flame shot out of a central pilot light toward each burner. It never failed.
The bathroom was strange – I’m not sure what function it may have had in its youth: long, narrow, high, with multi-paned windows near the ceiling between it and the kitchen. Its main redeeming feature (a feature that could redeem a whirlpool in Hell) was a clawfoot bathtub. Ahhhh. For some reason I painted the woodwork a deep slate blue. Mistake: The room hovered and glowered at me whenever I bathed and made it plain that it wanted to be left alone.
That bathtub, however, was home to my introduction to Russian liturgical music. Nonesuch Records in those days put out an astonishing range of world music – cheap too, albums usually a buck each. In a little downtown record shop I picked up Balinese gamelan, music from the Bahamas, Japanese koto and other then-oddities that became some of my all-time favorites.
I had no idea what to expect from Russian Orthodox music when I slipped it on the turntable and started my bath. Solid, thrumming harmonies. Ahhhh. I was attacking my upper back when suddenly the turntable went berserk. The speed slowed and the pitch dropped to a rumble like the death agonies of a mammoth.
It took me a couple minutes to realize that this was one of the famous Russian basses. The voice is deeper than a well, and as resonant; mournful, rocks complaining of their captivity. Michael Trubetzkoi sings the Epistle to the Romans with God’s own admonition, rising a full octave in half tones yet still ending a meter and half beneath your feet.
I’ve seldom had such an instructive bath.