Archive for January, 2021

How did you spend your summers when you were a kid?

Summer was always the Time of Year for me growing up.

I never joined anything. I wasn’t in any sports. Looking at an application for summer camp made me sweat and tremble. The thought of all and every bit of that panicked me. But summer itself was sacred, precisely because I was away from everyone. I puttered and walked around and ate blackberries and looked at stuff and… no idea what else.

No memory of anything but the joy of sunshine and not being in school. Summer should extend at least 11 months a year. I still feel that way.

But for one whole summer in my teen years, I sat hunched over a table in the stone-walled basement of our rented house off 37th Street in Powelton Village. I’d decided to paint all the little metal animals and people and landscape bits that I’d inherited from my brothers and that my mother had given me as Christmas presents over the years.

While I was growing up, beside my bed lay a box, probably a foot square, six to eight inches deep (cardboard? wood?) chock full of English-cast farm animals, milkmaids, itty bitty cats, firemen, interlocking fencing, shrubs, lampposts, tiny tractors, zoo species, train conductors, butchers, playful children and townspeople of all sorts. They knocked against each other in that box, all higglety-pigglety, some with broken limbs, all nicked and missing shatters of paint.

At Christmastime I’d spread two cloths, one green, the other off-white, around the Christmas tree, which usually stood on our “library table,” the long, narrow, solid  mahogany table my parents had purchased along with the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The encyclopedia fit exactly into the deep shelf that ran along one side. The duplicate shelf on the other side was free for you to extend your literary imagination.

On those cloths I would create town streets and stores, using wooden blocks, and wide farmscapes divided by the interlocking fences and whatever else was handy. Then I would meticulously arrange farm animals, townspeople, yard workers, zoo creatures, machinery and the tiny girl who sat in her tiny leaden boat on a mirror lake. It was a lot of effort, taking a nitpicky concentration I can’t quite fathom today. 

That teen summer I vowed to repaint and repair all the older pieces, maybe in their hundreds. The house we rented then had once been a pair of slim two-story twins that someone had run together – with two front doors, two simple concrete porchlets. The house next door was the same. They stood by themselves on a courtyard in the center of the block, up a brick walkway entered through a trellised opening. I have no idea how they came to be. There was nothing else like them in the neighborhood. 

One side of the basement, where the stairs came down,  held the furnace, a round coal-fed monster with oversized ductwork that I stoked daily in the winter from a pair of coalbins (I also pissed in it, which raises an unholy stink). On the other side, through an open doorway in a solid, stolid stone dividing wall, spread an equal but unencumbered space – no furnace, stairs or coalbins. A space. Its empty rectangularity drew me. For an equally empty kid, what a hideaway! 

So I bought a selection of half-pint cans of variously colored paint, carried down the animals and milkmaids and began work.

How do you mix minute quantities of paint tones? Our milk was home-delivered from Wawa (that unlikely name now graces a proliferation of Pennsylvania mini-marts and service stations). Each milk bottle came with a golden aluminum cap. Carefully levered, inverted, they provided tiny bowls.

I knew nothing of color mixing (still don’t). But all those English cows and horses must look right when repainted, so within these tiny milk caps, I set out to create Cow Color and Horse Color.

I don’t know the breed of my metal cows, but most were a uniform off-white. No righteous American cow would put up with that, so I decided to try to duplicate the shade of the few sister brown cows. After numerous failures I came up with a tint that could add acceptable cow-splotches to the off-white metal sides. Now those were cows.

Horse Color diverged only slightly from Cow Color through added red. Fine horses, noble horses.

From there I went on to green – the shrubs, the faux-grass at the base of the street signs, the hollow tree and swing for the little boy in shorts, a roofed bench (a bus stop?), a few dresses here and there. Then I moved to red.

I held off on flesh tones because a) I had no idea how to achieve them, and b) doing faces would mean I’d also have to re-color eyes and mouths. I’ve always had an unsteady hand. The slightly de-featured faces would have to stay as they were.

I never got beyond those first colors. I still have the metal animals, now layered in batting so they will never again jostle each other and do interactive damage. Lots of chipped faces there on the few occasions I pull them out for inspection. My attempts to repair limbs with glue, solder, tiny lengths of coat hanger and aluminum foil were mostly dismal failures. 

But those cows… Ah, they look mighty fine.

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What the patterns read

I’ve never had a career.

Throughout school and after leaving college, I never considered a coherent direction for my life. The concept simply wasn’t in me. I graduated Penn in the early ’60s, perhaps the only time in the country’s history when it was possible for a broad segment of muckabouts like me to drift through the world without having to worry about making a living or doing anything useful. I lived in group houses or really cheap apartments but gave no thought to a coherent future. 

It was all out there: If we ran out of money we could float it, just do without until something happened. I had written a daily column for the student newspaper at Penn, then used that “talent” not at all to find work for the next 20 years. Oh, I did stuff, took odd jobs (carpentry, office temping, stacking boxes in supermarkets), spent a few years doing part-time maintenance at my kids’ private school, Miquon.

Thing is, I’m still the same. Nearly everything I’ve earned from 1980 on has come from freelance writing and editing, but it was work picked up, again, without direction, without a reflection on “making a living.” Most of it fell in my lap, each job tacking onto the one before.

A lot of people like things I write, but I’m not a “writer” in any glorified or cohesive sense; I’m not anything I can point to. I’ve self-published three novels and a collection of short stories, am working on another novel, but have made no attempt to promote them. Now I’m verging on 82 (an 8-decade-old “vergin”!) with the sense of nothing coming except death – and not disturbed by that realization.

The novels are not only not part of a series, but consciously structured as different from each other as possible – what’s the point of writing a pile of words that isn’t personally unique? That’s the opposite approach of the current era, that can’t churn out a “life” article without the word “career.” (I don’t intend that as a snub to careerists. I don’t try to be different from other people, it just works out that way in the alleys that lace my head.)

What we do yesterday, today or tomorrow doesn’t have to lead anywhere, and in most cases doesn’t. I guess I see that as one of the few truisms of being alive; and if I’m right, then at least I’ve accidentally lived according to a personal truth.

Amazing. And somehow disconcerting.

*    *    *    *

Linda and I got talking about pattern-recognition the other night. The conversation started because of a plot element in the book I’m working on, but then it veered into illuminating an idea that’s been flitting through my head off and on. 

It started with Bush the Younger. The general consensus was that he was just plain dumb. I’m not saying he wasn’t or was, but watching his responses, what struck me as most likely was a learning disability. Maybe my response came from Linda having been a reading specialist who dealt with first-graders who had a rough time untangling written words.

One time Bush was pictured supposedly reading to a kindergarten class in Florida but holding the book upsidedown. I thought then (and still do) that it was just a really bad photo op, but it fit fit well with that stunned look of confusion that would cross his face when he was trying to make sense of something – less stupidity than, “Geez, what the hell?”

“I’m having difficulty comprehending written words” is not the kind of announcement a major country’s leader is going to broadcast, but such a condition must have created a hell of problem for those briefing him.

These days, massive amounts of time are spent focusing on Beloved Seditionist Stump’s bumbling, nonsensical pontifications, analyzing how they reflect stupidity, ignorance, a racist mental rash, and narcissistic self-glorification. I’d go with all that, but I think there are also important underlying neurological problems. I mean, what’s really going on back there? And what does it say about the man himself – a unique entity, as we each are?

When he mischaracterizes a fairly simple statement made to him, is it lying, deliberate misdirection, political gamesmanship, or a simple failure to understand what was said because he can’t form it into a coherent mental pattern? When he rants against anything that doesn’t mesh with his pre-conceived ideas, is it (only) bilious arrogance, or that when he can’t assimilate new information he has to throw it away, deny its existence?

He comes across as bad enough in person-to-person conversation and interviews, but his staff have made it clear that he never “likes” to read anything put in front of him. What if he just can’t? Oh, I’m sure he can recognize individual words, but what if sentences disentangle from their meaning, run off the page and fornicate in the undergrowth? What if he can’t see a coherent pattern in a paragraph? 

(Hell, I get that way with certain essayists. I was trying to read Francis Bacon yesterday and it was like somebody forcing my head under muddy water and yelling “Drink!” I think there are still scholars who want to credit him with writing Shakespeare’s plays; let me tell you, simply and flat out – NO!)

I’m making no apology for Lump’s behavior. I’m just trying to find explanations that could explain some parts of it: because if you don’t know the cause of a given problem, you’re not going to find a solution.

As for the larger issue of personal responsibility, many a soul with learning problems is fully decent. For any limiting mental condition – no matter what the details – some will be decent; others, by nature, rotten. Physically, morally, spiritually, Sump is a vile human being. 

*    *    *    *

Apropos of nothing… How do poets and songwriters “see” their rhymes?

In Blake’s “The Tyger,” we have this:

What immortal hand or eye, 

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In “The Ploughboy and the Cockney,” a song on Maddy Pryor and Tim Hart’s album, Summer Solstice, there’s this rhyme:

Oh, carry me to London and there let me die,

Don’t let me die here in a strange country.

And in Hank Williams “Jambalaya” we find:

Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh

Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.

I each case, the written rhyme works as it is seen, though in recitation or as sung, the sound… does not rhyme:

“symmetry” is spoken as “sim-met-tree,” which doesn’t rhyme with “eye”

“country” is sung as “cun-tree,” which doesn’t rhyme with “die”

“bayou” is sung as “bye-oh,” which doesn’t rhyme with “gay-oh”

Makes me wonder – what would blind Homer have said about this?

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Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads

Possum Hollow and Rose Valley Roads

That was the exquisite yet ridiculous address of the house where Rod and Ginny lived for 40 years before moving farther into the suburbs. There I spent my Christmases (and occasional New Years) in the ’60s, also during the years of distress following the breakup with Julie, and still later with Linda and the kids.

Rod and Ginny loved cats. Too much. Rod had picked up a mentally disturbed tortoiseshell from his work in R&D at Sun Oil, followed by strays from their local parking lot that had, for some odd reason, become a cat dumping ground. All these muck-abouts produced an endless line of interbred progeny – blind cats, deaf cats, entire litters of kittens that didn’t play, a feline Jukes family that rested blank-eyed on their haunches like discarded pincushions and had as much smarts as would make a jelly bean roll over.

Julie and I adopted two gray kittens that seemed marginally brighter than the others. We named them Thin Tail and Fat Tail. Fat Tail soon morphed into… Fathead. He finally figured out how to jump the back fence one day but never found his way home again. Which is to say, he got lost 15 feet from his own door.

Rod’s total, cats and kits, maxed out at 26 by my count. They sent my allergies into overdrive. Ginny would meet me at the front door with a bottle of Dristan in hand, and I would bolt a couple pills before entering. The cats pissed on everything – including the stove. Turn on a burner and run for the hills.

Their one accommodation to the cats was to scatter the floor under the Christmas tree with mothballs to discourage them from climbing and dislodging ornaments. I slept on the couch across the living room from the tree. Or tried to. The mothballs warred with the cat hair to keep me from breathing.

But those Christmas trees… Rod, with his mania for numbers, set out each year to a cut-your-own tree farm to search for the largest tree that would fit in their living room. The all-time champ was lopped off at eight feet to accommodate the ceiling, but had a 12-foot wingspan, extending from the far corner of their sizable living room to half way across the fireplace. It took Rod and then teenage son Roddy a good hour to wrestle it through the side door.

Even this massive invader from the woodlands was overburdened with decorations of all kinds, including the somewhat disturbingly embellished Christmas balls created by a local friend, Nancy. She turned a simple round ornament into a fat (pregnant?) angel in flight – revolting or erotic, depending on your leaning.

Rod’s was the first place I tried any kind of drug. Dexedrine, an upper that could make people squirrelly, was then legal and used to promote weight loss. Rod had some in his medicine cabinet, so I took one or two on Christmas Eve to see what would happen as I lay across from the mothballed tree extravaganza. Listening to the radio, I had the good fortune to hear Schutz’s “Christmas Story.” I’d grown to love Schutz, and this is probably his friendliest piece. The Dex brought an intensity, almost a melding with the music. I’ve never tried uppers again. Huh.

Gift-giving, especially once Roddy grew to an adult still living at home, was an enormous production. For stockings, each gave each of the others an entire full-length nylon stuffed with exotic food and (in Roddy’s case) joke items – an overpowering eruption of stuff. I couldn’t (wouldn’t want to) match this potlatch. In later years, Roddy would give Linda and me drinking glasses. Whether through innate clumsiness or the fact of having a tiled kitchen floor, we constantly shattered glasses; each year Roddy would replenish the supply with a new design. 

Getting there for Christmas was not always easy. By myself or with Julie, we took the commuter rail line. Rod’s house was bracketed by two train stations, at one of which they’d pick us up.

With Linda and the kids, we made the journey in our first car, a rattletrap ’64 Dodge Dart – when we could. One Christmas morning we found the battery dead. On whim, I moseyed around to Pearl St. to check for CJ. CJ, in his 40s, repaired cars out of a couple rental garages. Why would he be working on Christmas, and why did I somehow think he would? He came around and jump-started us and we were on our way. Merry Christmas, CJ!

Another year, Linda, Morgan, Erin and I went out by subway and trolley. Was the car dead? Were we between cars? (We didn’t take the train because the Christmas schedule was sparse and erratic.) The subway took us to the 69th St. terminal, where we grabbed a suburban trolley (the last one leaving that day). In Media, the nearest town to Rod’s house, we waited, at eight degrees, to be picked up by Rod, dancing around in circles in the snow to keep warm. Cold as a teacher’s wit.

(The opposite weather extreme ruled for Christmas of ’64 or ’65, when I invited friend Carol to join me at Rod’s. That day, the temperature reached 77. Carol was short, zaftig but plain, with red hair hair so luxuriant and thick she could comb it all the way around her head, switch her glasses to the rear and appear to be a fiery haystack moving backwards. 

(Carol and I trained back to my apartment where we spent two days in exploratory sex that did not end in intercourse (bizarre, if not just stupid). Fortunately, we were out when her father and brother dropped by looking for her or I might have been hospitalized. Instead, they just shoved an unfriendly message in the mailbox.)

New Year’s at Rod’s did not quite become a tradition, but an off-again, on-again happening, ultimately leading to my fusion with Linda in 1978. Before that, the most memorable New Year’s was riding around with my chucklingly crazed friend Chris Hessert. Were we driving to anywhere in particular? Don’t think so. I told Chris that we were close to Rod’s and he thought it would be a delightful idea to drop in, though he had never met Rod and Ginny.

We did that, just before or after midnight, and Rod and Ginny were awake. We had a fine time that Ginny still remembers fondly. For me, that particular memory of Chris is lost. Though so many more remain.

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The infidel within

There’s been speculation springing from studies of separated twins that there may, in effect, be “spiritual genes.” That’s putting it in a deliberately simplistic way, but the general idea is that some of us are wired for religious, or at least spiritual, throughput, others, not.

I entered Catholic school in fourth grade, not previously having been exposed to god (or if so, the exposure’s lost in time’s mists). The nuns’ continuing message of justified punishment, however, quickly turned my ever-quivering kid weakness to jelly, with their vision of perdition waiting to mug me around every corner. Without conscious transition, I accepted god, devil, ritual, sin and eternal retribution.

Yet once in college, I just as quickly lost all active traces of religion. And they have never come back, never hovered in the background; over the years, the distance between myself and – not just belief, but the possibility of belief – has become an unbridgeable chasm. 

After returning from my abortive post-grad stint at Stanford, I plowed through occultist materials and Eastern religious tomes under the maddening hiss of defective fluorescent lights in the Van Pelt Library at UPenn, until one day I realized I was reading down the center of every page because the same ten code phrases, repeated, rearranged but unvarying, had piled up like driftwood on my mental shores. There might be a stout trunk of truth in there, but the branches of differentiation had withered and died.

These declining days I’m probably the most materialistic person I know. It’s easy to dismiss my current dearth of spirituality as a rejection of what went before; it feels more like easing into my natural state. 

For the last few decades England’s been going through a remarkable academic debate about whether there is or isn’t a god. It takes on a rather nasty tone at times, and god knows (or doesn’t), the militant atheists are as rampantly pigheaded and doctrinaire as the righteously religious.

The pro-gods point to scriptural truth, gauzy internal knowledge and the “intelligent” complexities of creation for their justification. The anti-gods haul up the established laws of physics which, they say, will fully explain those complexities without the need for external intelligence (which, by Occam’s close shave, makes god unnecessary).

Of course, a hundred pages of “convincing” proof on either side will convince no one not otherwise ready to be convinced. For each of us, in a general sense, the Great Ruler is either faith or logic. 

Those spiritualizing genes (if they exist): Do they make us slaves to our predispositions? Or, more realistically, do they gently nudge us with their chromosomal arrangement? Either way, looking at my family, we seem to be missing a spiritual underlayment.

My mother was a (first Presbyterian, later Episcopalian) church secretary, and heavily into the social side of the neighborhood Episcopal hangout. Yet I can’t recall an instance of her extolling god or making a religious statement.

My father was Catholic and went to Mass every Sunday – because my mother badgered him into going. Why should she do this? As a power maneuver? Dad, likewise, said nothing about belief (then again, Dad seldom said much). Because of a “football injury” he’d received in high school (which failed to manifest itself during the remainder of the week), he found it too painful to kneel. He would hunch slightly forward off the edge of the pew during the those parts of the Mass when our church’s unpadded wooden benches impressed their grain into my knees.

Brother Vic? Not a word. I was closer to Rod, who claimed to be agnostic on a technicality: As a strict logician he could not say definitely there could be no afterlife or beatific vision, “but I’d be very surprised.” (I loved Rod’s wonderfully understated sense of humor.)

For those of you suffused with belief, I don’t know how to elucidate its lack. It’s generally impossible to describe a negative – though I don’t myself view this lack as a negative. It’s more that I can’t see anything out there to believe in. It’s hard enough to believe in the daily vagaries of the “real” world without drifting into veneration of the amorphous woo-woo. 

But is my disbelief determined, or have I chosen not to believe? Either way, innate compulsion or choice, I’m not accepting of the idea of god, whether as totem, anthropomorphic super-daddy, or fluid, unifying reflection of nature. I don’t view the totality of existence as inextricably linked. (I mean, should I intuitively imbibe the acceptance of a rock or be attuned to my cat’s deliberations?) And how does adding a god to the universal mix make it any more palatable, exciting, rewarding or comprehensible?

Good gravy, folks – the Big Bang! How much more visceral hoopla can you want? And couldn’t you, I or any concerned four-year-old design a more fair, decent and kindly universe?

There used to be (may still be) sanctimonious hogwash about deathbed reconversions – especially of Catholics – once they’ve recognized their “error.” Within our relatively long-lived family, at age 81 I’m about nine-tenths of the way to the Great Beyond (barring the iconic anvil dropping on my head), but I sense no intimations of religious immortality – God and the tooth fairy weigh about the same for me.

As for cozying up to a deity who would kick me down the heavenly staircase for faithfully following my own sense of the truth (which includes the lack of his existence) – would I want to spend eternity with a guy like that?

I “found” science after college and have cuddled alongside it since – petted it, gently nipped its ears, kitchy-cooed its silky fur. The religious might be justified in calling such adulation a “belief,” but I don’t think it’s the same kind of belief. I don’t believe in an afterlife (or a forelife, for those reincarnatedly inclined). I’m intrigued and delighted by the simple proposition: “I was not, I am, I will not be.”

I can’t offer the slightest hint as to why the universe exists – why there’s “something,” rather than “nothing” – but I do “believe” that physical law will prove fully adequate to explain the form and movement of the “something” that we experience.

The mind-rendering transformations of religious leaders – Saul to Paul, Mohammed to Prophet – came about during those converts’ middle age, a time of major shifts in brain chemistry. At one time I looked forward to something similar for myself – not because I gave a bean-eater’s toot about transcendence, but because knowing All The Answers would make it easier to steamroll ahead and the hell with everybody else. 

But though, as “The X-Files” rather lamely put it, “The truth is out there,” we, for better or worse, are stuck here. I find it more interesting to try to figure out existence on my own than to work with somebody else’s instruction booklet, no matter how attractively packaged with a gift certificate to the afterlife.

I’m not fond of the idea of dying, but I kind of look forward to rotting.

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