Friday, December 4, 2009

Catcher in the Surf

My parents had a few of their old grammar school readers, which I discovered stored in their bedroom closet at a time when I would read almost anything I could find. One story that I remember rather well was called, I believe, The Wishing Gate. This was the tale of a boy that set out in search of a wishing gate (no surprise there!), who finally became exhausted and discouraged, and sat dejectedly on an old country stile. Stiles, for those too urban or too rural to remember, are sets of steps for crossing fences, which are constructed like a stepladder, but with steps on each side, so that one can climb up one side and down the other, without trying to squeeze under or crawl over the fence, damaging it (or oneself) in the process. The story ends with the boy wishing that the wind would carry him home because he was so tired and disappointed. The North Wind did just that, and during the entire return trip the wind was chuckling. When the boy asked why, the wind replied that he had seen three funny sights in that day’s journey. I forget the first, but the second sight that had amused the wind was a chicken that starved to death beside a basket of corn (those old readers were not the pablum fed to today’s fragile youth!) and the third was a boy who had asked to be taken home because he couldn’t find the wishing gate while he was sitting right upon it.

This story came to mind during my recent trip to California to visit some old friends (It was a great trip; thank you for asking.) To lay the groundwork, I must digress a bit to say that when I was in high school and college, there were those of us for whom Catcher in the Rye had all the impact of Harry Potter and the Twilight series with a bit of the Bible thrown in. Holden Caulfield was so much my hero, so much the image of all that I longed to be, that I would read any book containing a character that any reviewer in America compared to Holden. And in the 50s and 60s, that was pretty much any book with a protagonist under the age of twenty. I thought that there was no higher goal than to be as sensitive, quixotic and as oddly courageous as Holden Caulfield.

Anyway, two of the projects that my old and best friend Emily had chosen for us to pursue for this visit were 1) to read some old letters from our mutual friend Lana which Emily’s brother had found in the old family home, and 2) to track down Ellie Woolford, whom you will remember from having read my December 3, 2005 entry on Spaces Live (As if!). To recap, Ellie was a girl I met when she was 14. Her parents were my hosts for most of the summer I spent in California in 1963, when I hitched to that land of surf and honey. Ellie and I were very close for many years until she married someone so mindlessly and yet so verbally Christian that I couldn’t stand to be around him. Oddly, when this lad asked himself WWJD, he got some rather unusual answers, since the break up of his and Ellie’s marriage after three kids was because of him screwing around. I have noticed that whenever people consult their personal spirit guides, they tend to get the answer they want, but that is another story. I haven’t seen Ellie in 30 years, give or take. Lana was Ellie’s cousin, and the two of them were my friend Emily’s best friends from first grade onward. Lana, who was shot to death by her boyfriend in Alaska at age 27, was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, with a fiercely independent and unique life view. She was fearless, and there are few people I have met whom I have admired as much. I first met Lana in 1963 when she was, like Ellie, aged 14. And there has probably been no one in my life that I have been so anxious to impress favorably as her.

I am getting to my point – just laying the groundwork. Emily and I did succeed in tracking down Ellie in Santa Rosa, CA, and during the animated conversation that followed, we all went over our early meetings with each other. I had not met Emily during the year of the hitch-hike journey to SoCal, but she said she had been anxious to meet me, because Lana had told her (Wait for it!), “This guy IS Holden Caulfield!” So all the time I have been seeking to become Holden, it appears I already had made it in the eyes of one of the most fascinating women I have known. And this is why I have been thinking of the boy on the Wishing Gate. I guess the secret of being something is not to be aware when you succeed at becoming that something.

But it doesn’t end there – good things piled on good things this vacation. (Can you take a vacation when you are retired? From what?) As I said, Emily and I were reading over old letters Lana had written her after they had graduated from high school and Lana had enrolled at Berkeley. And I found that in a fit of dissatisfaction with the freshman grind, Lana had written, “I never fully appreciated the parties at Shaughnessy’s house”, and then added that line that set my cup to overflowing, “I wish I could live like Dave, drunk, frivolous and chronically unemployed.” Now this might not be the description that Mama Shaughnessy might have wished to hear of her baa-lamb, but let me ask you, was I cool or what??? I might now pass (with regret) on the ‘drunk’ part, but frivolous and chronically unemployed – and even more, restoring all the insouciance that the line implies, is my goal for Part Three of la vie Shaughnessy. I forgot what life could be. And I am beginning to get a VERY good feel about this Retirement thing.

Oh, and under the heading of “Eat Your Heart Out”: I was on the telephone tonight with a Hawaiian guy with whom I have been corresponding, who has expressed serious interest in meeting me for the purpose of exploring our chances of being a love match (so far he thinks I am very intriguing, and I return the feeling), and in pursuance of this goal he thinks I should come to visit him. In Hawaii. For a longish spell.

I wonder if any of my old surfing skills remain?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Being me

I returned from a long weekend in Ft. Lauderdale to find virtually every leaf on my property lying in a slightly sodden mass upon the lawns. Autumn has well and truly come – well, it had done so some time ago, but there is nothing like a few days in sunny climes to sharpen the perception of winter’s advent here in New York.

My trip could not have been smoother or more enjoyable. Every flight arrived earlier than scheduled; I had terrific books and magazines to read; my iPod performed flawlessly and seemed to magically select all the songs to which I wished most to listen. Nguyen, my old colleague (and more), from National Upsy Daisy and his long-time partner Mark were great hosts – and Nguyen himself proved to be a great Vietnamese cook. They live in a luxurious condo; the bed assigned me was beyond comfortable and, all in all, it was a perfect trip if you don’t count the generosity of an anonymous fellow passenger in sharing with me his or her cold, or at least a plague of some sort which I hope is merely a cold. As drawn as I am to Fashion, I am not so much her slave as to desire a dose of the H1N1 phenomenon, particularly when I am scheduled to fly for California for a month’s visit next Monday.

So limited is my circle of human connections these days, that I found it quite a revelation to be with such a social pair as Nguyen and Mark. I attended a party at which there was quite a number of longstanding couples, all of whom seemed quite happy and content, and I found myself forced to contemplate a number of things concerning myself, that I had pushed into the background of my mind. Most of these thoughts revolved around issues of how much I want to be ME, and how much I want to be US – whether “us” refers to a partnership or an entire social circle. I guess, since I have no control over the thoughts and behavior of another, I am thinking what areas of my behavior I am willing to give up or subsume, and what areas I will not sacrifice. In many ways, I am a born loner – all the best times, in terms of thrill and excitement and something to talk about, have happened when I was alone, at least in the sense of not being involved with a companion – often there were lots of strangers along the way. But for day to day pleasure, nothing has exceeded the happiness and contentment I found with Tumwell, with Mustafa, with Babu – or even when spending times with non-partner-type friends: Emily, Barbara, - or those in a half-way status like Nguyen. In a way I guess I could make an inexact analogy with getting high – when one is high, things are fun, exciting, thrilling, but there is no meat there and lots of negatives, similar to the loneliness – and even, sometimes, despair - I feel when I am alone too much. When one is not high, (and not suffering the ill effects from the last binge), one has good feelings of stability, better relations with others, respectability, security and reliable friendships and so on, but one much more rarely reaches the heights of feeling. A friend of mine compared the two conditions to rocket fire versus a warm fire in the fireplace.

There is a big difference though between high and not high as opposed to being alone or together: with the issue of being high, you are or you aren’t – there is not the spectrum that exists between me and thee in social relationships. Narrowing relationships to partnerships between two people, there is a continuum along which one constantly dances, however subconsciously; every word and action is to a degree measured against the retention or moderation of relations with the partner. People who say EVERYTHING that comes into their heads are generally considered psychotic (and left alone); people who ensure that nothing spontaneous ever emerges are the dullest and unhappiest creatures on earth, people who demand such suppression of the partner’s spontaneity are never really satisfied and never know why things so often go wrong in their life, since they are never wrong, and yet people are unwilling to recognize or reward this marvelous fact.

One thing I like about Nguyen is that he is pretty outspoken in a good-natured way, and a couple of things he told me about myself were extremely useful in assessing how I put people off unintentionally. Nguyen likes me, he wasn’t criticizing me – in fact, he was discussing this in a spirit of saying it was something that made him laugh, and ours is a friendship where I do the same for him. It is good to know one’s habits as seen from another’s viewpoint; this way one can choose to modify them or not, and more importantly, one can better understand the reactions one gets when one is not aware of having said anything extraordinary. I do not wish to offend or attract someone based on misperceptions of my feelings or opinions, which might be created by verbal or physical habits that are not important to me, and that I am not conscious of having. Also I might want to be aware when I do things, which when done once mean nothing, but when repeated overmuch, create a perception that I do not wish to create. So I am wiser, but not sadder, which is a precious and rare thing. One of the things that Nguyen noted is that when I have to explain or repeat something, I get louder. I did not know that, but I can see where it makes me sound irritable (which I can be) or intolerant (which I sure hope I am not). This is something of which I am definitely going to try to be aware, particularly when I am talking to someone I do not yet know well.

A problem when one is alone too much is that one develops habits like this and once something is a habit, changing it can feel like suppressing “the real me” when really it both causes folks to miss the other, better parts of the real me, and it is not suppressing me, but merely allows me express myself in a way that the expression is received as actually intended. When no one tells me how I appear to others, then I do not understand the responses I get.

Well, all that aside, I realized I haven’t thought much beyond the immediate goal of meeting someone to care about. I haven’t thought about the life I want to have afterward. To a large extent, this will be determined by the other guy, of course. But there is still much that is about me; what do I want to do? I won’t be billing and cooing twenty-four hours a day. And meeting someone may not happen for a while or at all. What I want to do can start now, and be modified as necessary when someone else appears to join me. I am not talking about filling my time; I have plenty to fill my time. I mean more in the sense of having an aim; to what end to I wish to devote my time?

All the activities I thought I would be doing when I had time, I find I am actually doing less than when I worked. Gardening, home repair and enhancement, and – yes – blogging – well you can see how that last item has gone. Suffice it to say that I have done even less among the other activities. I do find I am reading much better quality stuff – I read and loved a book of Alice Munro’s short stories for instance. I find that I am a little impatient with the lighter weight fare I was reading when it was a matter of grabbing the hour to read here and there. I have spent so much time prior to retirement thinking, “I hate my job! I hate my life!” and now I am faced with having to think what I like. This is an exciting prospect at times, but can be a little scary too. I guess I am like a candidate who campaigned against the bums in power, and never thought what I’d do once I won.

Which reminds me; it’s Election Day and I have to go vote. Then I have to stock up on groceries and make an appointment to get my winter tires put on. See: I have plenty to doI just need to decide who I want to be.

Other than that, I’m good…

Friday, September 25, 2009

Love and Loss: A Beginning

My pal Sarah – yes that very Sarah who graces my paltry list of ‘followers’, whom might better be termed people I follow when they write (or IF they do), reminded me in a private communication of a technique for achieving goals which I once practiced successfully in achieving material goals. Her suggestion was not quite the same as that I recall, since mine involved visualizing and hers feeling, and mine involved the material, while hers, not surprisingly was more about feelings engendered by success – but anyway. In an attempt to try out her suggestion in the matter of solving my lonely current state, I winnowed all my conclusions from past happiness down to that which was common in all my past loves and my greatest friends.

One of the uses of this technique, both as I once practiced it and as she enhanced and amended it, is that one does not take into consideration such things as the likelihood, the practicality, or the how, merely how the end result feels. Thus one begins to cast aside considerations that once were blocks – in the matter of finding someone to love such things as distance, fitting in with various preconceptions and so forth - many of which are subconscious or only partially realized or which are far less important than one had been making them out to be.

I have for sometime, in a desultory way, been keeping up a presence and a search on an online dating site, because I was either new in town wherever I was living, or I was back here in my lovely, but tiny, hometown, where oddly enough, older gay men do not seem to be found behind every bush. Or any bush, let alone out in the open. This site has resulted in meetings with five men over a longish period of time, with none of whom did I ‘click’, although I had some very enjoyable dates, and do not regret any of the time we spent together. Older gay men are one of those demographics that are not high on the list of desirable catches (we are the skanky fish that get thrown back when netted by the tuna fishers); I am well aware of this; and those few who have much to offer among this rather large group also have a large pool of attractive, willing and often younger, suitors.

Well, I have long suspected that Sarah has an ‘in’ with the forces of destiny or whatever is floating around out there which is denied to such cynics as me, but even so, I have to say that following her suggestion has resulted, or MAY have resulted, in amazingly quick service. Because one of the points I have previously overlooked, is that with retirement I have gained flexibility in the location department, and when I cast my net over an area within the nearer thousands of miles, rather than within the range of a weekend drive, I just may have netted something interesting. “Interesting” is but a pale and sickly word for what I may have turned up, actually.

I am remarkably prone to counting chickens prior to their arrival at the local hatchery, and I am well aware that all kinds of things can go wrong, but I have always been one who believed in leaps of faith, leading with the heart and so on. The pain sometimes suffered as a result is well worth the fun and happiness that have also been found more often than those who constantly warn me of outcomes would expect. So anyway, a few days ago, I sent one of those ‘you sound nice’ feelers to a man on the West Coast who is (or who claims to be) in his mid fifties. This man had no photo on his page on the dating site; this is not uncommon on gay dating sites for what may be obvious reasons – and what the hell – the whole idea of dating is finding out things. One nice thing is that his user id was just a name, not ‘hotnhorny’ (not that the latter is a bad thing!). He said in his profile that he had a very busy life, loved his job but was always willing to make time for someone he cared about. Now, one sends about 30 of such feelers for every response one gets, and I was not sitting around with bated breath (and no it is NOT ‘baited’ which would be rather fishy and awful) awaiting this man’s reply.

But reply he did, which was terrific, in and of itself. The guy mentioned that the name on the site – his user id - was a pseudonym he had used in the military service where a cautious double life was required for gay men, since he had an unusual name which if leaked or overheard by anyone would lead to quick identification. I will call him Maxwell for purposes of this blog. He said many old friends still use his military pseudonym although they now knew his real name. I responded to him; he replied again – actually two replies a minute apart which I assumed was an accidental re-send, so at first I read only one of his notes. He said he liked my picture and profile. He also gave me his e-mail address. I sent an email with a very brief (for me) bit about whom and where I am. Then, just because I was a little thrilled to get this far along and wanted to extend and savor the moment a bit more, I went back and read what I thought was the accidental duplicate message. But it wasn’t a duplicate, it was another message saying he had now posted his photo for a brief time so I could see it, but that he did not like having it up for long. He said it was a poor picture, taken at the recent Emmys, which he had been able to attend because his firm did work for the producers.


He certainly looked his age or thereabout, but I have to say if I were asked to sketch the perfect 50-year-old man for me, the result would have been very close to him. I sent him a bit of effusion on that topic, and a long bio plus thoughts on life and love – and y’all know, when I say long, I don’t meant two paragraphs. Then I got all panicky because he was SO good-looking and maybe I overdid it, or went on too much or maybe I let out a lot of thoughts better left till later, or unsaid altogether. It is very hard for anyone, and doubly so for me, to write at any length and not reveal a lot that might be entirely what is intended. I am often shocked at the sort of things people will put on dating site profiles: mean-spirited, or arrogant or demanding. There are a lot of folks whom I would be astonished to find had received any responses. So I was shaking in my boots, after I sent the e-mail off.

But no, he loved the flattery (and acknowledged that he knew it for flattery) – and he had the grace to say he liked my looks and my personality and my writing (which I took for fact, not flattery, because I am much needier than he is). And he wrote me back at some length, while apologizing for writing less than I had done. And he’s interesting and great-looking and just what I want, and I have that feeling in the pit of my stomach that you get when you are about to jump off an unusually high ledge, or when you almost fall downstairs and catch yourself at the last minute. Sort of pre-love. So yesterday I wrote and wrote. For me, writing is like talking, when I am interested in what I am saying, or in whom I am saying it to, it just flows. I often discover how I feel about something only when I see what I have written about it. And I sent all this off, and there has been no response. And I am tense and nervous and can’t settle down because even though the man I have in my mind is only 5% real and 95% my fantasy or projection, I am so already almost in love that I can’t see straight. He’s busy, he goes to a gym, he has a lot of friends, he has a house that needs attention, he’s off this weekend with a group of friends to Vegas – there are a lot of reasons (I tell myself) for him not to have written back yet. He did say, when last he wrote, that he was taking his laptop with him to Vegas, so “don’t worry, I will be still be around”.

But I focus on that ‘goes to the gym’ – I don’t, so he must be much fitter than I; will he find me disgusting? His last partner, to whom he was ‘true blue’ for the duration of their relationship he says, passed away 8 years ago. This partner was a former model in New York. Oh dear. But he likes what I say about the feelings I want with a partner (thanks, Sarah!). We were both raised Catholic – this doesn’t matter on one hand, but I have found that I do tend to discover when I connect with people well, that they are or have been either Catholic or Jewish. So from that viewpoint this is a plus.

I have spent two restless nights hoping against hope; working out how much time I can spend away from home and the like, should the issue arise (Count those chickens!). He acknowledged that he too worries when he writes about seeming too needy, moving too quickly (as if there were a “quickly” for me that could remotely fall into the “too” category!). I have already made us a pair in my inner thoughts and am already at a point where a failure to launch will be hurtful and much like a break-up.

Shortly after his last longish email, another was sent labelled “Photo”. I actually hesitated before opening this, because I feared it was one of those topless gym sort of photos to which I would feel somewhat pressured to reciprocate in kind. Not, I fear, a pretty picture. I always feel I appear at my best when I am weaving a symphony of chatter to distract full attention from the sad remains of my corpus. I actually confessed to this, when I responded to the actual photo, saying that the thousands of years that had carved the Grand Canyon into an object of beauty had largely had the opposite effect on me. If rejection must come let’s get on with it, is my general idea. But no, the photo, when opened, was a threesome of men with arms about each others’ shoulder with himself in the middle, looking better than ever. The other two men were a current judge on one of the popular reality/talent shows and a former major teenage heart-throb recently making a comeback as an adult actor. I pray that he wants to impress me. But what impresses me here is his wide smile, his handsome face, and the surprisingly self-effacing emails he has sent.

So here I am – all abuzz with excitement and scared to death that I am set for a fall.

Otherwise, I have decided that there must be a bit more in my current life than sitting around thinking about yard chores which I do not seem to get around to actually doing, or about Max. So when my old pal from National Upsy-Daisy sent an email saying he and his friend have moved to Ft Lauderdale and why didn’t I come down for a long weekend, I booked a flight for late October. And when a good friend whom I met as a colleague many years ago said she was visiting California for some time in November and come on and visit, I booked a flight to do that too. And when an unexpected couple of sums of money showed up in the mail (I had one more pay cheque from Smallville Solutions than expected, and a pretty fat return-of-escrow cheque from my former mortgage holder), I wrote my cousin Warren and told him the Bali trip in January is on. So I guess, however things go with Max, I won’t just be sitting around in the coming days.

But everything pales utterly in comparison to the question just raised: with Max, or without?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

As I mentioned recently (with unaccustomed brevity), my nephew Josh and I went to the American Idols tour when it came to town. Getting there was, as they say, half the fun because the same evening saw some sort of Caribbean or reggae festival which centered in one of the very parking lots where one typically parks to attend events in the venue where the Idols had come to be – well – idolized. You may feel that this is city planning at its best, but it is but a small rivulet in the roaring river that makes up this nearby city’s lemming-like hurtle toward The End. Another telling signpost on the city’s highway to nowhere is that the venue, once built at great expense and, with a modicum of that civic pride that existed at the time, was yclept the War Memorial (although I imagine – or hope – it was those who fought in those wars and not the wars themselves which were being memorialized) has been renamed after an insurance company, presumably to memorialize those bankrupted by high medical insurance premiums.

The location of the festival was not entirely insane, because the parking lot in which it was being held stands pretty much athwart the downtown end of what used to be the vibrant commercial main drag of a cohesive community generally referred to collectively as Vanessa Avenue because of the street on which it centered. This area was also known as the ghetto, once that term had come into vogue for black-majority city neighborhoods. I had, in my childhood, occasional cause to visit the lower end of Vanessa Avenue (if the downtown end can be termed ‘upper’) because that is where my Aunt Lolly and her unmarried daughter Charlotte lived. Aunt Lolly was from an Irish Catholic Reedville family which still lives here in the area (Joe Gargan is currently landlord to my nephew Seamus, who is Josh’s brother). The Gargans all have a very characteristic look, which somewhat resembles the drawings of characters in illustrations for the old Lois Lenski children’s books. They have a coloring that runs to a brickish red in the cheeks – almost as if it were painted on, and in general a characteristic appearance that makes it easy to pick them out in a crowd. Unfortunately, this appearance which, in the men, tends to look like they might be in a painting of European peasants, translates in the women into monumental ugliness. My Uncle Jack, Lolly’s husband, had been an alcoholic who, like Dad and his sister Aunt Agnes, the other two alcoholic members of the ten siblings, had ended up spending time in the mental hospital. We Shaughnessys do not do things by halves. In Jack’s case, when he was home (or on a furlough – I never clearly understood which) after this episode in the 1940’s , he disappeared and was never seen again. He is the only one of Dad’s siblings of whom I have no memory at all, although they tell me he did visit me as an infant (when I was the infant, not he).

Jeez – How did I get there? I was speaking of Vanessa Avenue. I assume that when Uncle Jack and Aunt Lolly moved there, it was one of those middle class Irish neighborhoods with houses that looked pretty substantial and somewhat like the area in which Archie Bunker dwelt. But over the years a black population had moved into the area, leaving my semi-reclusive Aunt Lolly and Charlotte as two of the few, if not the only, white residents on Vanessa. I was so young when Dad would take us for the annual Christmas duty calls on all the relatives, that I have no recollection at all of the neighborhood’s residents, but I do recall that like all cityscapes it seemed to my open-air, farm-raised eyes to be kind of towering, close-built, dank and grey. In actuality it was a pleasant area (for a city) of houses with small front lawns, fair-sized backyards and solidly-built houses from the early 1900s. I had no idea that Vanessa Avenue was such a cohesive and pleasant community until just recently when I read a feature article in the Sunday paper about the latest of the Vanessa Avenue reunions. It turns out that families from the old Vanessa Street neighborhood keep in touch and have happy memories of the old Vanessa Avenue.

For Vanessa Avenue is no more. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the City That Has No Clue looked about its neighborhoods and decided that black equalled a need for urban renewal, and it replaced the Avenue with a park and a series of dreary public housing units. I remember attempting to find Vanessa Avenue on a visit back home when I lived in SF and finding to my astonishment that it had vanished into a sort of curving street with a different name, and that none of the houses remained. As generally happens when a poor but thriving community of individually owned properties is torn asunder and replaced with a bunch of single-ownership rentals, the neighborhood loyalties were kind of replaced with any remaining unity based on feelings of victimization, or by racial solidarity of the kind which sees no flaws among its own and no virtues among others.

So it was upon this new winding way that Josh and I were marooned in traffic for half an hour on the way to see Adam and the Idols. One characteristic of these urban attempts to create faux winding country lanes in urban landscapes is the complete impossibility of getting from one end to the other when one of the not-so-sylvan byways becomes the foremost route to anywhere popular, such as is Insurance Arena. Especially when Reggaefest is in full cry along its route. However, we reached our destination in timely fashion (I had been wise enough to foresee that there might be delays in getting to anything located in the downtown part of the city, although I certainly did not expect that the drive would become a mini-Caribbean cruise without the water. Or the luxurious suites. Or the service.)

The crowd that assembled to worship the Idols was in festive mood, replete with signs touting the idol of choice, and (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised), overwhelmingly white. There were more really young children whose age had yet to reach double digits, and also more people who surely remember when Elvis was young, than I expected. It was in no way the completely teen-age crowd I had expected. We filled most of Insurance Arena, although several sections of the highest tier of seating were either sparsely filled or empty. The guards/ushers were jovial and pleasant and everyone came ready to be pleased. One guard, chatting with an early-teen pair of girls in front of us, looked over at a lady in her late fifties or sixties next to them and joked, “But you and me are gonna have trouble if I catch you screaming.” Josh and I had hundred dollar seats (sixty-three dollars originally, but resold to us at the higher figure) in the fourth row of the ‘pit’ which turned out to be a small seating area facing sideways from the main stage toward a narrow extension of it that jutted out into the middle of the crowd, forming a section shaped like – yes – an armpit. Any time a performer strayed to the portion of the stage to the side of us or in front of us, we were about 15 feet away from him or her. The sound in our area (or maybe throughout, who knows?) was execrable, so that the content of any speaking, as well as lyrics to the songs, had to be guessed at or put together from the word or two that one could decipher. Several giant jumbo screens were mounted above and to each side of the stage so we could see on TV what was happening right in front of us. I guess this was to benefit the type of people who go on dates but spend the entire evening texting and phoning others. People are increasingly fearful of reality or in-the-flesh experiences.

Prior to the performance various Idol-related clips were shown: David Cook performing, Carrie Underwood performing. Periodically the current tour performers were shown in reverse order of the highest level to which they had survived – from Michael Sarver at ten to Kris Allen at one. Each time Adam was shown, a roar went up. And it wasn’t just me roaring. Indeed, throughout the show, any mention of Adam gave rise to a big shout from the crowd.

The show began with two songs by Michael Sarver as well as a few remarks which I was not able to discern. He is a genial fellow, but he had the unhappy task of getting the crowd warmed up, a crowd that had come, as far as I could judge, primarily to see one of the top six – notably Adam. The sound was too screwed up for me to judge – even vaguely – his or anyone else’s musicianship in any detail. Most likely all sang well and hit the notes and so on. It was possible to tell when they did any color notes or variation on melodies, but not to know how this would have sounded if one were listening to a recording. Like all the men, except Adam – and to some extent, Anoop – Michael was dressed any-old-way – in his case mostly denim. I saw no star quality in Michael, but a workmanlike performance from a likeable guy.

My first surprise of three during the evening involved the next performer – Megan. I forget her last name – something with ‘cork’ in it, I think. On the television show she had been a little gawky in her movements, but tremendously feisty. So it was a real surprise to find her stage presence to be sort of – not scared, exactly, but slightly unsure. I later noticed that unlike most of the others in the group numbers, she did not seem often to connect with her fellow performers – or even to try to do so. A couple of times she glanced toward the backup singers or offstage as if awaiting a rescue. Her singing was fine – although I had the same problem as I did with Michael as to making out words. I liked her second song – it seems in memory to have something to do with ‘letting your hair down’ or something. It was upbeat and fun. She was far lovelier than I realized from television. Very tall, thin as a rail, but shapely, with a gorgeous face. She was sexily dressed in a very short tight bright pink dress. She also was somewhat suggestive in her behavior (as were many of the performers – Michael had stroked his thigh suggestively, and so forth). The crowd had come to enjoy, but neither of the first two performers really united them in a shared experience. I say Megan was a surprise, and she was: I expected in-your-face and a touch of brass, but I got tentative.

My second surprise was Scott, who appeared next. He either had a better sense of the sound system or simply had a voice that was more suited to it. To accommodate his blindness, they arranged that he rise from beneath the stage already seated at the piano. He was terrific. With Scott, you could feel the crowd finally cohere, and get into the show. Between songs, he did a little chat – making jokes about his blindness – how people would wave to him across the room and his total inability to see them, and of course about the high-five contretemps involving Ryan Seacrest on the TV show that became a viral video hit. I can imagine Scott making a career as a local performer in smaller settings. He has the ability to connect that I did not see in the two prior performers. He was better on stage than on the show I thought, in which latter case I found him completely ordinary. Later, during the group performances, I was impressed by how slickly the choreography allowed Scott to be led by one of the others without making that fact stand out. There would be a balancing pair opposite him doing the same sort of close-together moves, or some other palliating factors. I think that if it weren’t for Scott’s remarks on his blindness, a newbie could have left the show never realizing he was blind.

Liz Rounds followed Scott, and she too was easier to hear. She was beautifully dressed with lots of rhinestone – including a sparkly pair of heels and a wide rhinestone belt which, were it but real diamonds would have caused Queen Elizabeth t blink and draw in her breath sharply. She gave a solid performance, but again I saw her more as a support singer than a star. She certainly has a voice; that was obvious.

After Liz, we saw Anoop Desai. There was a burst of applause for him – he definitely has his fans. He sang three ballads – he knows his strength. I had noticed this before without realizing it consciously, but when it happened again on stage I realized it was a habit: whenever Anoop is about to start moving forward after singing in a stationary position, he dips his upper body backwards slightly and throws one hand behind his back, so there is a kind of lilting bob in his first step while his legs slightly precede his body. When I was kidding with an Indian co-worker that I like a lot at Smallville Solutions – this guy shared a surname with Anoop - I referred to this as the ‘Anoop sneak’. It looks a bit like a kid starting a subtle move to snatch another cookie before Mom puts them away. Anoop sang simply and well. His forte is not working the stage or the audience, but to simply stand and sing ballads skillfully. I enjoyed him; as to his future, it could go either way. I would say recording might be a greater strength than performing. He was in no way disappointing – you would once have seen the same performing style from Dean Martin and others from his era, but now the mode is to move around and knock ‘em out, or so one gathers from watching the TV Idol shows.

Matt Giraud followed Anoop and he was terrific. Matt has the kind of finely modelled facial features that do not photographed well, and he is far better-looking in person than on TV. This guy loves the audience. Of all the ten, he seemed most to connect with individuals in the audience. He appeared to actually see the various signs held up for him, or the people who made some gesture of connection. (Some tweeners seated close to the stage ahead of me had signs for several performers, which they switched as the various singers performed; cynics already at such a young age.) Matt sang beautifully; I can see him becoming one of those lasting performers with a fanatic following like Jimmy Buffett. I’d gladly go to see him again, especially in a smaller venue, where I bet he would hold a near lovefest with the crowd. He is bluesy at his best, and a fine pianist. After his solo songs, he and Scott duetted while using two pianos; my impression is that Matt is a very generous performer, and the duet made them both sound even better, I thought. Another duet between Liz and Megan was Megan’s best performance. After a few more combinations of the first six performers an intermission was granted to my vast relief, because I had to pee like crazy and didn’t want to leave while people were performing, but I was also reluctant to wet my pants.

After the interval, the first performer was Allison Irraheta. This girl is a star in the making. I cannot imagine her failing to make it big. She has a huge voice – I might have been able to hear her without a mic. The audience was at her feet and she worked the stage like a pro. She channeled Janis in Cry, Baby, a song that Simon had inexplicably derided as a poor choice during the competition. Words fail me in describing how good this kid is already, with so many years to improve still before her. I pray that she can be Janis without the pain. On the way home Josh asked me, “Did she seem drunk to you?” I hadn’t noticed anything amiss, and I pray she is not on that road. During the course of the Idol competition I always come to feel I know these people, and feel like I am on a first name basis with them (which is lucky because I rarely remember their last names). I have a personal feeling about ex-contestants which I do not have for other performers, however much I may like them – as if these kids were from my high school or something similar. Allison sang several songs – all great – and at one point mentioned Adam (roar!). She was all smiles and a crowd-pleaser.

Poor Danny Gokey. A remarkably fine singer – for the first time I realized that if I close my eyes, he sounds like a black singer. I say “poor” because the crowd was well aware that Adam was next. Danny was a good singer, and had none of the awkwardness in his movements that characterized his TV appearances. I completely expected him to win the Idol competition and I think he has the voice to have done it. I wasn’t generally aware of how much his one-too-many homages to his recently dead wife (“She would have wanted me to…”) had put people off, though I was aware there was some feeling of ‘all about me’ in regard to him. I watched on YouTube several interviews with Kris, Allison and Adam, and I noticed that despite many personal references to one another, none of the three ever mentioned Danny except in statements such as “I thought Danny would do” this or that, during the competiton. I don’t think Danny is well-liked by the others. Personally, I don’t see a future for Danny, despite his talent – and despite the fact that there were a number of Danny fans in the audience at the arena. Danny needed a victory on Idol. I'd sayhis best bet would be to team up with his talented best friend Jamal who disappeared during the Hollywood portion of the show (after giving what I thought was a terrific performance – by far his best) and work up a duo act with him. Both are good singers, and the affection between them would add a quality that Danny lacks alone.

And then Adam. Smoke rose from beneath the stage (Every church-goer who voted for Kris knew EXACTLY where that was coming from). Adam appeared back-lit, then lit from below. And he was awesome – he was Adam. He did a Bowie medley at one point which may signal the direction he will take; I hope for a more Freddy Mercury or Jim Morrison path, personally. It was funny – he is a big, well-made guy, so when he did Bowie, who is sort of wispy and androgynous, he came off as almost too masculine for the material. Adam actually doesn’t come off as gay, except when he wants to. He did one song deliberately a bit on the gay side, even his voice changed a little – it was a nice bit of fuck-you without being sissy. The gay thing has nothing to do with why I like him; I truly believe he will be one of the greats. He made the stage seem tiny, he was so dominant. He knows his theatrics, but he transcends the theatrical. He has so much singing skill – such range, different voices, almost. I used to follow some of the web commentary about him, and the only negative comments that irked me (I don’t mind people not liking those whom I like; not everyone is as discerning as me) were those who “couldn’t stand his screeching”. Clearly these are people who have never heard rock – who think David Cook is a rocker. No – Rock and roll, is passion, it is Jim Morrison, it is Mick and Janis, Led Zep, Steppenwolf; it is trembling on the edge of death – theirs or yours. Adam never missed a note in his life – those vocals at the top of his range were spot-on perfectly pitched falsetto. I have nearly all Adam’s performances on my iPod and I use the shuttle feature, so when he happens into the rotation I am not especially in the Adam mood or mode, and I marvel each time at the glory of his voice. I have no quarrel with Adam failing to win Idol; lots of people don’t care for real rock and roll, lots of people prefer boy-band sounds, or crooner, or country or blues styles, all perfectly legitimate preferences. The mode now is for crooners, or for a watered down form of rock with all the anger removed. Every fair, as Shakespeare reminds us, from fair sometime declines. Thus 50s through 70s rock was homogenized, pasteurized and made safe for grandma – although the grandmas I saw at Insurance Arena were reliving the Woodstock days as they were caught in the Adam glow. But in rock, the Carpenters won in the end. I truly believe that Adam might be the man to save real rock and roll. My second coming, as it were. I plan to take a few months off soon and stalk that boy. (“off from what?" you are asking; exactly – Ain’t life great?) Just to make me completely happy, Adam called Allison out to reprise their duet from the waning days of the Idol show. It was better than the first time, if such is possible. I have seen the Promised Land.

Finally, Kris Allen. I had heard tales of people starting to empty the theater in prior Tour appearances (although these reports were on pro-Adam discussion threads, so it could have been spiteful reports of one guy having to go out to pee). That’s as may be, but my third surprise of the night was Kris Allen. He was fantastic. His exuberance and joy in performing were revelatory. He is a performer that draws you in, unlike Adam and Allison who blow you away. I think this tour might assure him a lasting career. I couldn’t stop smiling as he performed. This guy is all about ‘happy’. In person Kris proves that his win was not some freak thing. I would still say that in a judged contest based on star quality, Adam would have won, but I can see where Kris got his votes and he deserved them. It would be hard to go to see Kris sing and to have a bad time. Huge energy, but the over-riding note was joy. A very handsome kid, and a terrific singer – he had me in his hand by the second song, and he won over Josh when his third song was the Killers song, All these Things that I Have Done. Both Josh and I are huge Killers fans (though neither knew the other was until now) and Kris tore it up.

So anyway a good time was had by all. I am glad I went. And I have a gift card for iTunes just waiting for Adam’s first album. I have been thrilled by many songs in the last several decades, but not since the 70’s have I really loved a performer – and I love Adam. I am retired and Adam is performing – it is like Woodstock all over again. Life is good.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Come to Mama

Once, when Tumwell and I were in need of a new apartment, one such became vacant on that iconic street (to some) in San Francisco named Castro. I was highly reluctant to move to a location that was well known as THE gay street, (Harvey Milk was sometimes called "the Mayor of Castro"), but the man offering the apartment had inherited it, and had little need to make a bundle, so the price asked was $350 per month, pretty good even back in the mid '70s. This was an excellent apartment with fireplace, two bedrooms, wooden floors (which proved not to be such a boon, since the girl upstairs habitually wore wooden clogs and had no carpets) and, in the end, we took it.

Not long afterward, a friend of ours invited us to come along to a party in the 24th Street area. Twenty-fourth Street was the center of an interesting population, a large component of which were women who had been hippies ten years before and who had begun to rise in the world, while in firm denial that they had changed in any way from the free spirits in used clothing that they had once been. Hippie-dom was a deeply felt political and social movement for many, but it was also undeniably a fashion movement for many fellow travellers (Much the same as one today finds "gangstas" in leafy suburban cul-de-sacs . There were a load of kids from the middle class and upwards who would have been aghast if any of the goals of the movement had been achieved at their expense. While perfectly happy to see their parents taught a lesson, they felt quite otherwise about learning the same lesson. As the years passed these women kept wearing denim but had begun paying two or three hundred for their jeans, kept the long hair but paid plenty for the styling and so on. One fashion accessory that was surprisingly common in the immediate post-hippie years was a grammar school-age child that was partially of non-white blood. The few black women involved in this scene tended to achieve the same degree of style by having a white boy- or girlfriend, although in some ways just being black was fashionable enough. Twenty-fourth Street was dotted with little specialty cheese and butcher and boutique-y type shops and darling little restaurants where one could get things that ten years earlier one would have been highly reluctant to eat.

Nonny, our hostess at this party, was of the artisan/Earth-mother type. The true Earth mothers of the day were overweight, wore flowing dresses of some vivid print, let their hair hang long and free and liked to bake. The artisan sub-species however, such as Nonny, were slim, weathered-looking, brown and, like Nonny, wore their hair in styles that kept it at bay while they fixed gutters or made pots. Nonny had a long black braid laced with a few white hairs that hung down to her waist in back. She was the very picture of the popular idea of an American Indian woman and probably would have been delighted to be mistaken for such. She invariably referred to Bob Dylan as "Bobby" (no last name); one could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that he had just had brunch with her the week before.

The party was one of those pot-lucky sort of affairs full of whole grains and home-baked breads and things that looked like meat but weren't, over which everyone was expected to exclaim delightedly. Although this was primarily an adult party, there was a child or two present whose parent or parents believed in the theory that children should be included in everything. One little girl, who was determined to find something that went beyond the permissible, was wildly annoying; I recall her walking up to a strange man and asking, "Do you like farts?" Alas, she was no match for her parents, who were determined to tolerate anything she came up with (and to wither anyone present who felt otherwise about the extremes to which a child could go) so she failed to attract the punishment she so richly deserved and so determinedly sought.

At this party we met Nonny's inner circle, three of whom turned out to occupy separate apartments in two matching wooden houses that sat further back from the street than their neighbors within a block of Tum and me, on Castro Street. Since the friend Roger, who had brought us to the party was a school teacher and one or, perhaps, all of the three were fellow schoolteachers, Tum and I and our closest friend Barbara merged our social lives with theirs for a period of time. It was one of those odd social things, where in many ways I didn't really like the ladies, yet there was a fair amount in common (including Roger himself, who was a very good friend to Barbara, Tum and me) and we ended up being invited to dinner parties at one or the other of the ladies' apartments fairly often. I usually dreaded going, (not my kind of food just for starters) but I always went.

All of these ladies were single Moms; whether never married or divorced I was not certain in Frieda or Star's case, but I know that Belinda had been married to Jake about whom I heard much, but never met. Star was involved in theater and for much of the time I knew her, was in rehearsals for one or another show. She had a slim early-teen-age son with rather wild kinky blond/brown hair - although I suspect it was kinky from Semitic, rather than African origin. Frieda had a teen-age son and a daughter about ten. The son was eventually thrown out for stealing his sister's radio to sell for money to buy heroin, and was then taken in by Star, which may have been a one-up move on Star's part; the ladies were all militant feminists, but more than that they were MOTHERS, in the most capitalized sense. Much of their conversation involved theories of mothering, and statements that began, "As a mother, I...". I learned of the son's addiction only after an incident when an angry and armed young man came to Star's door looking for Frieda's son, who had apparently burned him in a drug deal, to find Star's son alone at home. Although no violence ensued, Star was somewhat shaken. My friend Barbara was horrified at the risk to which Star had put her son (not to mention the example being set daily by Frieda's son) and urged Star to move immediately to protect her kid.

"Well, I can't right now," Star explained. "I've got the show coming up," and went on to detail a number of things that apparently presented more inconvenience than her son's life merited. The odd thing about these mothers was that despite their endless discussions of mothering, they had no thought of putting theory into practice. And, anyway, "It's not like he's an addict," Frieda said, indignantly. Say what?

Most eloquent of all in matters maternal, was Belinda. She was a tall woman of Scandinavian ancestry with the face of a Bassett Hound. She dressed in true Earth mother style: I never saw her in a dress that did not sweep the ground. She and Jake (who was, needless to say, a black man) had four of the most divinely beautiful children that I have ever seen. These ranged in age from Krishna who was 17 down to Ravi who was probably about 9 or 10. All had lovely honey-brown skin, enormously large eyes framed with lushly black lashes, softly curling black hair, and the two older boys were very tall. The second boy Rama was easily one of the ten most beautiful people I have ever seen. The remaining child, third in order of age, was a girl named (sigh!) Kali. It spoke volumes about Belinda's sense of mothering, that she would name her daughter after the Indian goddess of death. I would (and did) equally question the wisdom of raising these beautiful boys - who because of their height looked older than they actually were - on a block of Castro adjacent to the business area of that heavily gay area. While I know very well that gay men do not run around raping and recruiting, I nonetheless question the choice of location, since the street was busy with all sort of hi-jinks at that time. A gay man seeing these beautiful young men in that area could naturally assume that they were there for a reason. On the other hand, I know many women in San Francisco, including my friend Barbara, choose to live in gay districts because they tend to be safe (for women) and with the constant presence of people in the streets, there is usually someone to ask for assistance if any unpleasantness does occur. So maybe that was Belinda's logic, if logic she used. Still, I think I would not have exposed a boy to quite such a busy block. Believe me, if one can afford an apartment on Castro, one can afford one plenty of other places. Then again, as the Haight had grown dangerous, Castro's easy tolerance in some ways made it the successor to the Haight-Ashbury, even for the non-gay. And you could always score some weed from people a good deal less threatening than some of the Haight's current denizens.

Belinda was, without question the slowest moving human being I have ever known. A ground sloth could have given her a half-mile lead and still beaten her in a three-quarter mile race. An elderly Cadillac driver on a cellphone would have seemed like a fast-moving blur to one moving at Belinda's pace. Seeing her at the end of our block headed for our apartment, Tum and I could enjoy a leisurely meal, a short nap and awaken refreshed in time to greet her at the door. Despite her rate of flow, she still managed to visit us rather often for a time, no doubt to escape the demands of the brood about which she was so fond of theorizing motherhood. Cut from the rest of her herd of mothers in arms, Belinda could be somewhat entertaining, so we were happy enough to welcome her visits.

Not infrequently, her conversations touched on the manifold failings of Jake, although as is so often the case with women in her position, the children were passed off to the iniquitous Jake whenever Belinda needed her space, which was most of the time. Apparently, among other things, Jake had an alarmingly bourgeois attitude about parenting. "Oh, Jake is all hung up on the kids having a good breakfast," quoth she one day in scathing tones. In all the time I knew Belinda, I never once remember all four kids being at her home at once. Those damn men are sometimes pretty convenient for a woman who dedicates herself to mothering politically.

Although they had men friends and men were often present, certain of these ladies could no more give a man his due than they could fly. Once I recall a rather effeminate young man appearing at one of their party/lunches. "Oh, this is Teddy," cried Nonny, introducing him to us newbies, "He doesn't like himself very much, but we all love him." And everyone lovingly checked up at length on all Teddy's weaknesses and suicidal issues. It was only with great difficulty that I discovered that Teddy was a concert pianist who had played solo with the SF symphony and elsewhere. Surely, when introducing a dear friend, that impressive accomplishment might be touched upon at least once? Or am I being a little shallow here, all hung up with worldly accomplishment?

One of the more unsettling rituals at these ladies' dinners, one to which I didn't catch on at first since each case seemed to be unique before I discerned a pattern, was the ritual flaying of one of the men present. Some poor fish would brush across these ladies' political antennae with a seemingly innocuous remark and the blood bath was on. Certainly if Nonny was present, this would be the case. I am not talking about a guy making a sexist remark even by the most tortured logic. It would just be the poor schlumpf's turn that day. The ladies would go into merry mode and just would not let it drop. It would be difficult to take exception to any one of the remarks made, yet the endless whole taken together was pretty devastating, and left the target rather numb and dazed.

Inevitably, with my mouth, I was the sacrificial lamb one day. In a general conversation about this and that, I mentioned how irritating I found Sammy Davis, Jr.'s talk show appearances. Sammy had a pattern: he would trade jests with the host, and at each of the host's sallies he would laugh heartily waggling his head, slapping his legs and totally convulsing in laughter. Then after a couple of minutes of this, he would seize upon the topic covered by some joke and go all quiet and turn to the host, saying, "But seriously, Johnnie," (or Dave, or whoever)... and then relate some tale of woe or hardship that plucky little Sammy had overcome. These were never just because he was black, although that hung in the air, but some additional difficulty that even the average black person did not have to deal with. His loss of one eye, his diminutive stature, his Jewishness, his marriage to a white (it wrecked her career, by the way, not his - and when black became beautiful - and in fashion - he dumped her for a black woman). And his concern for the hardship of the average black person at the time always seemed rather faux and peripheral. He famously endorsed Richard Nixon whose 'law and order' campaign was specifically aimed putting an end to black progress in the nation. A talk show moment I shall treasure always occurred when Sammy appeared on the show of his fellow Rat-packer, Joey Bishop. The two minutes of hilarity went ahead on schedule, then Sammy went grave and said, "But seriously, Joey; a lot of people don't know that my mother was Puerto Rican." And before he could enlarge upon how that made his case uniquely difficult among those of all men, Joey replied, "Oh, really? I thought your mother was Japanese, and every December 7th, you attack Pearl Bailey!" Sammy just froze for a second, the brave-little-man train had jumped the track and there was a noticeable pause before he re-entered the knee-slapping, head-shaking hilarity mode.

But I have strayed into a byway on old Memory Lane. Back at the luncheon party, I had somehow given an opening and Nonny was the first to attack (as always) observing how odd it was that anyone could become exercised over SD, Jr. One remark after another was made over how shallow the conversation had become, and so forth. It went on and on. And whenever someone not in on the game went on to another topic, Sammy Davis was somehow inserted into the response. This went on for a very long time; I could see by my friend Barbara's face that she was aware that I was floundering in quicksand. There was never anything to refute; no one accused me of anything; they just made merry at my expense. How pointless my life must be to have ventured on such a thought! Finally Barbara called to mind an engagement she had just made up and said she had to leave. "I'll go with you," I said gratefully and we fled.

That was the last I had to do with these ladies en masse, although Belinda continued to visit Tumwell and me occasionally. She found some sort of position as a "woman's advocate" and continued her discoveries in the adventure of mothering. My friends rather gleefully collected anecdotes concerning Belinda's forays into motherhood. Once Belinda was discussing the sacred topic with Tumwell when her son Krishna was present. "Huh!" said that ungrateful son, "A hot dog and a dollar are all the mothering I've had this month."

Another time our friend whom we always called Judas because he had played that part in our performances of Jesus Christ, Superstar was visiting Belinda (he found her hugely entertaining) and she was specifically talking about how she believed that one should always be honest and tell one's children the truth, no matter how difficult or how adult the topic. They were interrupted by Ravi, the youngest, who asked for money to buy some ice cream. Belinda told him no, but he persisted and she said, "Ravi honey, Mama doesn't have any money," whereupon the boy seized her long and colorful skirt and shook it, causing it to tinkle merrily with the clash of dimes and quarters clinking together.

"What's that?" he demanded.

Poor Belinda - she'd have been the perfect mother if only she didn't have those damned kids.

After Tum and I left the apartment on Castro, we continued to hear occasional updates on Belinda from Roger or Judas or Barbara. I remember Barbara calling one day and telling us in awed tones that Belinda had left her position as a woman's advocate and was looking for a similar position to advocate for children. We shared a moment of silence as we contemplated the lucky children who would have such a devoted supporter. Then we heard that Belinda had moved to Marin County where she was living in a teepee set up on a ranch owned by some of her friends. It was not clear whether any of her children lived there with her; Krishna and Rama would have been grown by then, and possibly Kali also, but Ravi most likely had gone to live with Jake and his bourgeois hang-ups about good breakfasts and the like, so that Belinda could continue mothering without his interruptions.

The very last news item we heard was the most astonishing of all. Belinda had managed to break up the marriage of the ranch owners. The husband had forsaken his wife to take up with Belinda. Those who have never seen Belinda cannot adequately grasp the degree to which this might seem to be an item for Ripley's Believe It or Not.

The only explanation I can muster is Freudian: the man must have been seeking a Mother.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How I Spent My Summer

My word, I have been absent for a long while! I probably haven’t a single member of the Shaggerati left, and I guess I deserve it. In my defense, I have begun no less than three entries, and got interrupted before I could finish. And much has happened in la vie Shag since last we spoke, as jeankfl who kind of has an inside track, knows.

First and most gloriously, I am retired. I feel like my life was interrupted for a fifty-year long commercial and I am now returning to our regularly scheduled program. My reverse mortgage went through. I have my Medicare all filled out and took a blind stab at the supplemental insurance, since I can’t for the life of me grasp what the real sum of money to lay aside for medical purposes may be. I am somewhat more sanguine on that front, however, since I have selected as my primary provider, a clinic whose clientele is largely quite poor down in the city. Let me tell you, for medical purposes you always want to go where the poor go. This may be counterintuitive, but believe me the counselors at such venues know every trick in the book for getting the cheapest possible deal for every kind of need. They know the available help for those whose income has dropped precipitously. It looks like my health expenses may be less even than my best-case scenario imagined before I went there.

The weekend around the time of my last post my sister Lucy came to visit and stay at my house for two weeks (three weekends). Lucy and I were very close as children, but she has gone right and I left, and our visits tend to resemble armed truces where firing may break out at any moment. This was a spectacularly successful visit (aided, no doubt, by the fact that I was only home on the weekends). Our battles used to be started by me most of the time, then that got old and I shut up at which point they began to be started by her. This time we circled each other warily, but had a nice time, staying off topics political, religious and historical. Lucy has in her psychological make-up something that baffles me, but which I am beginning to see is present in a lot of women, which is that no wound ever heals, even slightly. She seems to suffer today 60-odd years later exactly the same degrees of shame, pain and so on when recalling a hurt that occurred when she was pre-school. A case in point: she once had - around age three – a pink knit dress that was her good dress and which was worn on such occasions as might arouse relatives to an orgy of picture-taking. Indeed, one perusing the archives might be excused for thinking it was the only dress she ever wore. Among the many pictures of her in said garb, there exists one where she innocently grasped the skirt by its hem and held it in such a way that white panties (or a diaper) were exposed. Naturally we boys mocked her until our throats bled, but eventually Lucy was able to destroy every known copy, and the matter rested there.

Years later, graduated from college, married and mother of two boys, Lucy was moving with her husband to Orange County, CA and all the aunts gathered to give her a farewell party. Aunt Suzanne presented a book of pictures from Mary’s life progress up to that date, which she, kindest of women, had gone to great trouble to find and assemble. And as Lucy smiled and thanked her, she opened the book and there was the three-year-old in the pink dress, showing her panties. Although she managed to remain pleasant, she was stricken just as if she were again three and the object of her brothers’ derision. She was also furious. Everything is like that for her. Every one of the many, many times our dad embarrassed her by his behavior (though this was never aimed at her), is as raw and new and shameful as the day it happened. She forgets nothing; she forgives nothing. It is way more than holding a grudge; she genuinely hurts anew again and again. I simply don’t understand it, but I know it is real. Where my problem comes with Lucy is that I never fully understand the range of things that she finds hurtful or weird or embarrassing. So I, who think nearly everything is funny when people behave foolishly, which is all the time, inadvertently offend her again and again by commenting on things. Her view of ‘normal’ – a concept that is the chief and only deity ensconced on her Olympus, pretty much consists of what she would do in any situation. If she ever had imagination, she has reigned it in and clamped it down and let it die from lack of exercise. She has had a singularly fortunate life – a husband with few vices, none of them humiliating, who has made millions many times over, kids who are healthy, smart, attractive and who have had exactly one brush with the law among them involving a thrown egg when the oldest was in high school. All of this is great; where she veers off the track in my humble opinion, is in thinking that anyone in any other circumstances, is there out of wilfullness, character defect, and quite possibly a malicious desire to annoy her. Anyone who has read more than two of my entries can see why we are as oil and water.

The weekend after Lucy left, my brother Jack stayed with me along with his chére amie, the platinum-haired Eglise. Alone among his brothers, Jack likes girlie-girls, trophies, girls who demand constant attention and generally behave like the fiancée who, in films, ends up getting dumped for Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts, whom the audience has liked all along. Eglise is great for an hour, a very social, chatty sort, but after twenty-four hours during which the chat has not ebbed even slightly, one begins to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. There is much else to be said about Eglise, and if I am feeling mean-spirited as I so often do, I shall devote a whole entry to her one day. Suffice it to say that no house in which resides the lovely Eglise will contain anyone able to get away long enough to post any blog entries.

The weekend following the departure of Jack and Eggie, saw the sudden and unexpected arrival of my brother Liam and his wife Phoebe, who just felt like taking a week off from the tourboat job in darkest Utah and flying home. I like both of them enormously, as does everyone who meets them (or him, at least; my brother Luke is not so fond of Phoebe, who is prone to call a spade by its proper name and to brook no nonsense). They stayed at Jonesy’s, who lives on the shores of one of the minor Finger Lakes south of here. So that weekend I was down at Jonesy’s house. Jonesy and his wife are rather amazing people. They live like high school kids. Anybody can come and stay at their house anytime, whether they themselves are home or not. They are always ready to party. Yet both Jonesy and his spouse run businesses – he a local convenience store cum deli which is not part of any chain and which has been successful for years, she a gift shop which provides an increasing share of the family wealth. Jonesy also runs from his convenience store a catering business which tends to provide plain food for a hundred or so at a time for summer picnics, organization festivals and the like. So these are not irresponsible potheads by any measure; they are the most responsible of potheads. They live the life that one dreams of when one is young – their own boss, moderately well off, their real year-round home where everyone else has a vacation rental, and parties anytime anybody they remotely know comes through town.

The week after Liam’s visit, the class of ‘59 at my high school had a three-day series of events for their 50th reunion, to which they invited the classes of ’58 and ’60, the latter of which included me. So I had three fantastic days of seeing folks I really like, including one whose jaw dropped when he saw me and who cried out, “David Shaughnessy?? I heard you were killed in Saudi Arabia!” I assured him that despite the best efforts of the Saudis, such had not been the case. He looked at me several times as if he were still not convinced. Actually it was a four-day event, since I took off work (quaint phrase which I may well never use again, at least in relation to myself) the Monday following and was invited to break my trip back to Smallville by stopping at the home of one of the girls I liked a lot to have a lunch with THE POPULAR KIDS! After fifty years, I am IN! It simply doesn’t get any better than this.

Well yes, it does. Because the remaining weeks that I have been away from ye Blogge, I have been rushing around doing pre-retirement things; including attending a dinner where I was given three books (one on use of the English language, a gift that was intended to reward me for constantly reminding my boss in meetings that events are “between Mary and ME”, not “Mary and I”) and gift certificates to the tune of several hundred dollars – mostly from American Express, but also some for iTunes (they know me well) and a restaurant. And my nephew Josh and I went to the American Idols Tour when it came near us, and I got see Adam from the fourth row, as well as being totally blown away – to my surprise – by the winner, Kris Allen. And Allison, of course. Perhaps a topic for another time.

And now I have to run. We have had three days of sunshine and temps in the high seventies and the seven-day forecast says we have seven more of the same in store. I need to get to my lounge with that thriller I am reading. If there were a deity, one might imagine he was saying, “What took you so long?”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June: Not Bad So Far

Two weeks ago, I had my counseling session, which is required by federal law before I can actually apply for my reverse mortgage. The one thing that is very clear – I had already grasped it, but this made it even clearer, is that this is something of an irrevocable decision. No one should get a reversible mortgage to solve a temporary difficulty, nor should anyone get one who has any possible heirs that he or she might wish to endow with his or her property. I can get out of it once it is in place, but it will be costly. If I get out within two or three years by getting a new first mortgage or otherwise paying the debt, I will have paid an effective 10+% rate for the two or three years, since many of the costs are front loaded. Once these two or three years have passed, the amount owed will have grown to the point where I would be hard-pressed to afford a new mortgage to pay it off, and I will be far worse off than before, although at that point, with the presumed growth in value of the home, it will have come down to an effective rate of outgo v value well below 4%. Are you bored yet?

The following Monday, I took off from work, because an appraiser came to value my property at the worst possible point in the economy, but here’s the thing: I can wait – and work every day of that wait – until times are better, or I can retire very soon. Retirement is not one of those things to which you can tack on days at the end to compensate for a late start. That weekend I arrived home to find my estate resting silent in its beauty, awash with bright flowers surrounded by its eighty-foot trees, a perfect oasis from which one would never really have any reason to stray. I think mosquitoes, deer and work are put on Earth to keep us from lying in a puddle of ecstasy under the nearest tree for the entire month of June. What a gorgeous time in this gorgeous place. The sensible person does little but stare about himself in a peaceful daze and haze during June; the rest, I guess, get married.

One statement that the mortgage man made to me when we spoke has been gnawing at me; he cheerfully informed me that all the projections that the insurer is making assume that actuarially I have 18 years left to live. This led me to thinking that even if I don’t turn up my heels on schedule, I will be well into my eighties, an age where one is too old to do much more than spoon mushed-up food or shoot up a Holocaust museum, neither of which activities is on my bucket list, I assure you. This led me to cast back 18 years and think what I was doing then, and I realized I was in Saudi enjoying the First Gulf War. Didn’t that just happen? All of a sudden life looks very short, and if there were no work, pretty sweet.

I was planning to write Warren and Marlena this weekend to say that joining them in Bali was too costly and not to count me in. But now I am thinking, “So little time!” Moreover I was driving thru the town south of here where my brother Liam’s best friend and his wife (well actually they are both his best friends) run a small grocery-cum-deli, saw them outside grilling a passel of chickens (which were, mercifully, deceased) and stopped to say hello. I mentioned the Bali thing, and they thought they too might be interested. The deal is that Warren and Marlena are renting a luxury villa in January in Bali. Since they stayed there earlier this year; they know the owners and can get it without the agency fee that they paid the first time, which is substantial. This villa, which has a full staff, including a guard, will cost them about $150 a day – far cheaper than a hotel, but it is very large and can accommodate a lot of folks, so although the price is fixed, the more folks that stay, the cheaper the cost for each will be. So, I am re-thinking the “no way”. I had been worrying that money would not last if I lived too long, now I am worrying that it won’t all be spent. Second in horror only to the thought that I will still be working when I die is the thought that I will leave money behind unspent.

Very likely I won’t be able to do this in the end, but I’ll think about it a while longer. My high school class is celebrating its 50th reunion with a Caribbean cruise in March (doesn’t retirement sound fun?) and there is that to pay for. And Bali is half a world away – there’s the airfare to get there and back. Still, Bali, you know. It is one of those places you only hear about, and I have always liked actually going to places that seem like myths. I am not sure how have I missed Timbuktu for so long.

My sister Lucy just left an hour or so ago; she has been staying here for the last two weeks, a period made easier for both of us I am sure, by my absence from here while I worked in Smallville both weeks. Lucy and I, though we were very close as kids, now circle each other warily when we are together. Altogether though it was a successful visit, and ended well. She was here when the appraiser was coming and went into a flurry of activity to ensure that his first impression was a good one. I love when women visit; the house is always so orderly and clean when they leave. Her efforts must have worked; my house was valued at the high end of my hoped for range; $200,000. This is high for the area; not because it is a lower income area – far from it – but because Western NY is chronically depressed. I think the entire state outside New York City and maybe Long Island isn’t so much low income as it is no income. With the kind of money I make, a mere droplet in such places as California, I can live like a king here. Lucy loved being here alone in the quiet; her husband retired rich but mildly disabled and is always home. I think they have a good marriage, but she says she loved being wholly alone in my house. Her husband is always home, and she says that although he is not interfering and intrusive, she feels kind of guilty not being busy during the daytime. She finished four books while here – mostly in the daytime – guilty pleasures!

My brother Jack and his somewhat irritating girlfriend will arrive this week from AZ. I do live the high life. This is another visit that could go either way.

Anyway, Lucy took all us locals sibs – George, Luke and his girlfriend Carol, and me to dinner at a restaurant, which was once a beer joint, but has now been considerably upgraded. We ate outside on a deck, which is a hundred yards or less from the substantial waterfall in Hagerty by which the first gristmill in that village was once powered. I actually used to live in an apartment above that restaurant when it was a joint with a very loud jukebox. How it has changed! A large blue heron swooped up and down the creek for our viewing pleasure. It was a very nice time, not least because Lucy footed the bill. Poor George, who has not had a scintilla of good luck in his life time (he has been abducted at gun point; he hit and killed a drunk pedestrian who suddenly step in front of his car, etc. ), had one of those slightly odd experiences that seem to come his way. George is a recovering alcoholic, as they say, and ordered iced tea, while the others (except me) had beer or wine. The drinks arrived – Luke and Carol having Coronas, Lucy some merlot and a diet Pepsi for me. The waitress plopped down a glass of brown liquid in front of George; he took a swallow, and said, “That’s not tea!” So he had his first sip of brown beer in 13 years. Stuff like that always seems to happen to George. He is the quietest guy, and very deliberate in his actions – not at all a ‘what the hell’ kind of guy like Luke and me and yet if any stray bit of weirdness comes along, it immediately takes dead aim at George. A small thing; but really, how many people order tea and get Guinness? It is not like the waitress mis-heard; she had clarified after his order whether he wanted he tea sweetened.

The reverse mortgage man says I should have the money in a week or slightly longer; I have next Friday and the entire following week off from work; life is sweet.

OMG, I just clicked on some odd spot in this effloration and the whole thing disappeared. Shades of the old MSN Spaces days! But not to fear, I have recovered my mewlings intact.

Hope y’all have as good a next couple of weeks as I plan to have. I know all about the best laid plans; which makes me think these weeks would be best if I got laid. But that is another topic entirely…

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Reverse is Forward (Maybe)

Last weekend, when I left Reedville for five more irksome days in Smallville, there was a single pink peony half-opened by the corner of my house. Yesterday I returned to find hundreds of blooms. I have them everywhere – they line the back of my driveway, appear on all four sides of my house in one place or another. Some are the hugest I have ever seen. This place is a little Eden and, to make certain that I see more of it in the near future, I am meeting this morning with a rep from the reverse mortgage people to go over some papers. It would be dishonest to say that I don’t have a host of second thoughts in the wee hours about both getting a reverse mortgage and about retiring. I am unused to not having money left over at the end of each pay period. I buy whatever I want, and a lot of stuff I don’t. A whole new idea must rear its ugly head in the near future – discipline.

That is a virtue that heretofore I have only encountered in dictionaries or novels involving mysterious deaths at service academies. I subscribe to the untested thesis that I mostly spend to alleviate the vast tide of boredom that is my current situation. This touching faith in my inner contentment waiting to break out and warm itself in the sun of my retirement flies in the face of all past experience and requires a determined effort to ignore the evidence of the past 66 years. What is true though is that I really can’t go on as I have been doing. One lesson I seem to have to learn anew each time it is needed is that just as bad money is said to drive out the good, so to do time-killing activities drive out the energy to do what really matters, unsatisfactory relationships preclude the opportunity for real intimacy and so on. The people I want to spend time with and the things I want to do cannot be squeezed into whatever time is left over here and there after the aimless and unsatisfying activities in which I engage these days.

People with whom it is worth spending time are busy and popular. You cannot expect them to make time for someone who is merely a new acquaintance when that someone is unhappy with his lot and trails all kinds of baggage, none of it of an interesting or intriguing nature. Things that are worth doing demand time and commitment. I find, for instance, that I cannot write when I have other things scheduled. This is why, with rare exceptions, I blog only on days off. However good or bad my efforts may be, they require sitting down with an open-ended amount of time and going where my thoughts take me. I admire people who squeeze in their hobbies in moments snatched here and there. So many terrific writers and other doers of worthwhile tasks can do this, but I cannot. I must immerse myself, and I cannot do this when an arbitrary endpoint is looming. It is like waking just before the alarm goes off and trying to go back to sleep with that damn bell all set to ring. In addition, doing things I dislike (like my job) exhaust me far beyond what the effort involved would lead one to suspect. I just cannot summon either will or energy after work. I am lucky if I bother to eat.

Another more insidious thought also holds me back from getting involved in something I care about while I am still among the employed. If I were to do that which I loved, how could I ever go back to work again? I think on some level I keep myself from getting too involved, from loving anything or anyone too much, for fear I just could not draw back when it was time for work or other pointless activities. When you are with a thing, or a person that you love, the time flies. I often think of the character in Catch 22 who strove to make his life as boring as possible with the aim of making it seem to last longer. I have wondered if I may be unconsciously doing that. The college years, the surfing years, the years with Tumwell, the years in Saudi went so fast. Like Prufrock’s women they have come and gone, and perhaps like Prufrock, my courage has failed. The last 14 years, since all of those people and activities have been absent, has been an eternity. I wonder if, on some level, I feel that a life of real commitment will feel like a running jump into the grave.

What I must do is find out. Will I replace work with something real, or with just more pointless obligations that seem like work? I don’t really know; I am amazingly good at formulating vast plans that never quite get implemented. Based on past experience, I will have a fallow period lasting a month or two and then I’ll go somewhere or do something. I need some time to actually believe that freedom is real; that the shackles of servitude have finally been struck from my wrists and ankles and I am free. They say that people who have been confined for a long period of time tend to continue to live circumscribed lives for sometime after; even forever in some cases. I have heard often that men released from prison will stop and wait at closed doors afterward, because they are so used to doors being locked, requiring someone else to open them. I expect I shall be like that for a bit. I have let a life lived in default go on so long that I am too unsure of how to seize freedom right off the bat.

Later that day.

My man has come and gone, leaving behind a sheaf of papers that could account for half the trees felled this year in the Pacific Northwest. This reverse mortgage program is a federal thing, or at least a federally regulated thing, and now that I have been thru an hour and a half of preliminary paper rustling, nothing can be done until I have had legally mandated counseling. Apparently this is mainly for an independent party to ensure that I am not senile, a charge that I have not been entirely free of risk having leveled at me since I was about five. Once this has been completed I must get an appraiser to evaluate my house – hopefully he wil be impressed with my new super-insulated beveled glass front door that cost me, after installation, $4,600 all told. And the deck my brother Luke built, and the new roof and the tankless water heater et al. Certainly the man here today (who has nothing to say in the evaluation/appraisal process,) was blown away by the beauty of my surroundings. That is a good sign at least.

Around one my old high school friend and fellow altar boy from the years just after the discovery of fire, dropped by. He is visiting from Chicago where he has lived and taught school since 1971. He was saying that he thought that ours was the luckiest generation in history. Our parents fought the big war and worked their butts off to give us enormous opportunity, which we of course have screwed up so incredibly that our heirs will never know it’s like to live as we did. I’d pretty much agree with that – in fact it was I who added that last bit to the conversation. Happily we boomers (or more accurately in our case war babies) have done our damnedest with two presidents who never got beyond adolescence and have passed the torch, along with ruins of our educational system, the shell of a manufacturing dynamo that is a faint memory and a lot of faux religious blather, onward to a genuine adult to try to reassemble. Good luck to him. We will of course, demand that even billionaires get their full entitlement of social security so that no penny which can possibly be spent on us will be overlooked. I imagine our little grandchildren looking up at us and asking, “Grandpa, what’s money?” If I know the boomers, they will say, “Oh, it is just some Chinese custom,” without any thought of explaining why it is their custom and not ours. And certainly not the faintest idea that this, or anything else, is our fault. Ya gotta love us.

The man today estimated that the cash should be in my hand by July 1. I can’t even really imagine anything that could feel as good as that moment, except the moment sometime after that (but not MUCH time after) when I say to my boss, “Can I talk to you for a minute...?”

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Old Time Entertainment

I don’t know if it is just my perception, but Spring seems this year to have arrived with a lushness that is unusual even in this lush and blessed Eden. Every blooming plant I have seems to have three times the number of flowers it managed to produce last year – indeed, a lilac I was considering removing because it was so sadly skanky and miserly with its blooms last year has astonished me with lavish lavender clusters this year. My wisteria, planted only two years ago has thrown out its first-ever bud and my climbing hydrangea, a plant that is notoriously slow to establish itself, has at least three flower heads about to bloom. And so it goes; every plant on the estate has either tripled its display or has suddenly bloomed for the first time. Peony plants, which are everywhere in my demesne, are practically invisible beneath the loads of buds they are bearing – even some I moved after they had already appeared this Spring have departed from custom and thrown out buds.

Some months ago my sister Lucy sent me some photographs that she had been given by our cousin Annie who has probably never thrown away any memento she ever collected, including a paper cup in which an aunt once gave her a drink (I am not joking here). A couple of these pictures are from an event my sibs and I staged so very long ago, and one picture in particular shows us so happy, so lively, so united that it smote my heart just a bit. I have wanted to post it here for a while, but something more than my complete lack of know-how has held me back – although I must confess, the lack of know-how and even greater lack of will to learn anything new involving computers may do the trick, however I resolved the other issue.

Speaking of the lack of will in the matter of computers, I must say my team leader called me aside yesterday and informed me that my boss’ application to get me a third week each year of vacation from the rigors of work at Smallville Solutions has seem to be stalled and that he therefore has directed her to tell me that I am to take my third week on the DL, so to speak, and that I was to tell her when I was taking this extra vacation time, and she was to record it for the department’s eyes only, up to the full extra 40 hours, while the department blatantly lies to HR and claim I am at my post. I will entertain no remarks here on the possibility that there will be no noticeable difference in the amount of work produced. I do need to note that my desperation to retire and my hatred of all things job- or computer-related has nothing to do with this particular place of employment, where I have a great boss (as just demonstrated), and perfectly satisfactory colleagues. The distance of my work from my home is debilitating after driving it for more than two years through rain, snow, sleet, sun and traffic citations. But it is the lack of discretion over the disposal of my own time and life that is becoming unbearable. Living in two places as I do, I am unable to get a social life going, or to pursue real interests (if I have any) in either place. I could, of course, but I am far too inert and too easily discouraged or distracted. It is time for me to have a real life, instead of this mess through which I have sleep-walked for lo! these many years. Yeah, I know – cliché, there. I called a reverse mortgage lender this week, and I arrived in Reedville to find a fat envelope awaiting me with the info I had requested from him. I am afraid to open it thus far, because I have gone so far in my mental retirement (no clever cracks here!) that I can’t bear to be disappointed by what I find.

But I digress. What I was about to talk about was a time long ago when I was about ten or eleven, when there appeared in various locations around Reedville posters announcing the coming of something called the “Darktown Jamboree” to our local town hall. I had no clue what this was all about, but any break at all in the dailiness was a matter of great interest in sleepy, never-changing, rural Reedville. Indeed, if a cow farted, my siblings and I would be diverted for half a day or more. Our Town Hall had been built in the 1930’s and included, besides the garage for the local fire trucks, of which there were two, and the local library and town offices, a basketball court along one side of which was a fine stage with heavy purple curtains (in my memory they are velvet, but I am sure that was not actually the case) and overhead stage lighting and the works. This building, which was built by an agency as one of those projects that made up Roosevelt’s attempts to provide employment during the ‘30s, was a real center for town life: we voted there, held suppers there, crowned the annual Harvest Queen there, spoke to Santa and received gifts from him during the annual cartoon show and party for the local children put on by the Fire Department there – I even attended first grade in its basement. And once in a great while, chairs were set up on the basketball court and some show or play was performed there upon the excellent stage. These were memorable events; this Darktown Jamboree was to be another such show.

I had no clue what the name portended, nor would it have made any difference one way or another if I had. But this was nothing more nor less than a classic minstrel show with local citizens in blackface performing Stephen Foster songs along with other music commonly associated with what we invariably called “colored people” in those days. Of course the central feature of minstrel shows is the group of men sitting in a row telling corny jokes with various broadly drawn reactions by the group to the punch lines. I recall very little about the show itself, except that we were convulsed with laughter throughout, and a new interest was born in the hearts of the Shaughnessy clan.

I realize now that minstrel shows were disrespectful and demeaning to the black people they purported to portray, and I would not consider attending one now any more than anyone in our town would consider performing in one. As a child, and I think this is common to many children, I could know several conflicting ‘facts’ at once. I could know that this show was depicting black people as somewhat buffoonish without ever once seeing any relationship whatever between these portrayals and the only black kid that I knew, Clinton Parks, of whom I have written. It would not surprise me at all to find that Clinton could – or did – attend this event and may have found it as removed from his experience or as unreferential to him as did I. Or perhaps that would not be the case, perhaps he would have found it hurtful. I have known personally a number of black people who were highly entertained by Amos and Andy, (as well as others who were decidedly not) and the show Amos and Andy really was no more than an extension of the minstrel show idea.

I am straying into territory where I have no authority at all, but it is my guess that for a group in power, such as whites in the U.S. in the 50s, there is very little that is admirable about shirking work, or laziness, or getting by on trickery. But to a group who are powerless, whose members can work their asses off, behave on jobs with complete integrity, and who can be the absolute model of the perfect worker and still make absolutely no forward progress in life or in society, the image of a man who ‘gets away with’ shirking his duties, or who puts one over on the boss or company, or on society, is a far more admirable or heroic image. So where the white man sees someone like – was his name ‘Kingfish’? – I never saw the show, and only listened to snatches of it on the radio; I was too young to comprehend it – but I am referring to the slick, feckless character that provided so much of the humor in Amos and Andy as kind of useless and typical of the ‘laziness’ of a group of people whose best efforts brought no reward, who had no reason whatever to work hard for the benefit of white society; someone who is in the powerless class whom Amos and Andy and Kingfish represented may see such a man as something quite different. Amos and Andy was just entertainment after all, and the writers probably never gave deeper matters a thought, but I am guessing that the character that was kind of the ‘straight’, socially acceptable character – was it Amos? – was kind of a stand-in for white society. No one would have considered putting on a show at that time based on blacks duping or frustrating actual whites. Indeed, there has been a string of fiction back to Robinson Crusoe, through Gunga Din and Uncle Tom’s Cabin right up into the ‘60s and beyond where the admirability of a nonwhite character was based directly on his selfless devotion to one or more whites. (Spellchecker doesn’t like ‘admirability’, but I do.)

As I said, Darktown Jamboree struck a chord in the Shaughnessy hearts. This was particularly true, I think, of Gary. Throughout his life Gary was hugely drawn to the oddballs, which one could argue the characters in a minstrel show were. He loved Jimmy Durante and used to do routines for the family, imitating him. He liked in real life people who were somewhat weird, but who were authentically so – who had no clue to their own eccentricities; although they may be aware that they were not popular. If someone was goofy-looking or had odd ways, Gary was drawn as the proverbial moth to a flame. He did not champion these people, or plead their case – he treated them somewhat roughly (I don't mean physically) as he treated everyone, but he liked them, and they tended to like him. He could laugh at their oddities – and did so – but he did not bully or mock them in front of others. He would directly address eccentricities, and was neither put off nor intimidated by them, as I would be. He could and did like a number of non-white people, without at all having any predisposition to like such a group as a whole. In this (as in so many other things) he was my opposite. Whereas anyone more or less had to earn Gary’s affection or interest, I was predisposed to like anyone whom I perceived as different from me. I am sure we were sides of a coin. Gary’s last great enthusiasm of this kind for a portrayal of an oddball before he died about 14 years ago, was the character Ed Grimley as portrayed by Martin Short. I knew the second I saw this character that he’d be right down Gary’s alley, and so he was. I wish so much I could have shared Mr. Bean, whom I first saw on TV in Saudi, with Gary. I tried; I brought a video tape home that I purchased in Riyadh, but unfortunately the video format was not playable on our machines.

I am having a hard time working out the timetable exactly, because I know that once we decided to put on our own Darktown Jamboree version, I was learning the format and history of minstrel shows in school along with the work of Stephen Foster, and eleven seems awfully young for that kind of study. Maybe I was older – it seems I would have had that kind of course in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. I look young in the picture, but I always looked young for my age. I was last carded for buying alcohol in my forties. I know that I was the one who came up with such facts as that the traditional names of the endmen were Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones; that there was a traditional sort of break in the jokes where the characters performed a ‘walk-around’ and even some of the traditional jokes, the only one of which I recall now being:

Mr. Tambo: Why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Interlocutor: I don’t know, Mr. Tambo; why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Mr. Tambo: ‘Cause it’s fur to de end of it!

We deliberately made our jokes as corny as possible. We tried to hew to tradition as much as we knew how, but made two innovations to encompass our circumstances; we added a female (called “Sapphire”, of course) to allow Lucy to join in, and we added a moment for Liam, who was very young, to perform. We did this latter by announcing “a word from our sponsor” at which point Liam walked out wearing a sign that said (Wait for it!) “Sponsor” and he said, “Hello” and walked off. A word – get it? Get it?

Gary was the driving force; anything in which he did not interest himself tended to peter out among us younger Shaughnessys; although I was the eldest, he was usually the leader. In a rougher age where I would probably have inherited the land, he would probably have assassinated me and taken over; happily for me, we managed to all follow Gary's lead without the need for such strenuous measures. We worked pretty hard at perfecting our show. We boys dressed up in Dad’s old cast-offs including the amazing number of old felt hats we found around the house, while Lucy padded herself out to look fat and wore an Aunt Jemima style bandanna and a red satin blouse. We rehearsed for days – probably weeks; we thought we were exquisitely funny. Finally we were able to perform at a big family picnic at my Grandfather’s home. It was there that the photograph that Annie acquired was taken, although I doubt that she was the one who took it. Most likely it was taken by Aunt Cassie, her mother and my Mom’s sister. Our ‘blackface’ was skimpy; we had remembered to bring our costumes, but realized once we got to Grandpa’s we had forgotten whatever we had been using for black, so we used the greasy black deposits that had formed over the years on the woodstove in Grandpa’s kitchen – a substance that we were to discover adhered to everything we touched and was nearly impossible to wash off.

Our minstrel show was one of those childhood events that we all remember fondly. The picture was taken at one of those family picnics where all my Mom’s sisters would gather with all the cousins and we would break up into age groups and head out for a day of mischief. Lucy and I usually wandered off with Annie who lived in the next county and whom we saw not more than two or three times in a year. Gary, being more of a ‘real boy’ than I, had no use for the girl cousins and would be off with Rob and Jack and whatever boy cousins showed up. All of us cousins (many of whom now can barely stand each other) loved those picnics at Grandpa’s and enjoyed each other tremendously. Grandpa had a big old house with the gloomiest-looking tall evergreens in the front yard and along the side (we always called them ‘pine trees’ as we did all evergreens, once we outgrew calling them all ‘Christmas trees’, but I think they were firs) – those gloomy kind where the sub-branches, which grow out of each side of the longer limbs that extend from the trunk, droop down and look like they are just waiting to drip rain on a picnic. There were rooms off of rooms inside the house – one attic-type room could only be reached by entering a big old bathroom and going through a creaky door at the far end – and all kinds of places to play could be found, most of which we were not supposed to be in, and which were rendered attractive by that fact alone. The house had a haunted, lonely feel; by the time of the show Grandpa lived there alone. Outside there was an alley paralleling the driveway formed by two rows of overgrown grapevines – mostly Concords with a single vine that bore white grapes that you could eat skin and all, and there was an excellent pear tree which bore a huge number of pears each year, two apple trees which bore mild yellow fruit and a big patch of bushes of some kind of sweet black berries which we called ‘long johns’. There were also two neighboring barns which we were straitly forbidden to visit and into which we usually managed to go surreptitiously at least once each summer.

Anyway, here we are together, happy, blacked up rather sparingly (thank goodness) a long, long time ago when all was possible and nothing bad had yet happened. There’s Lucy, then me, then Liam wearing his ‘sponsor’ sign (upside down, you may note), then Rob, Gary and Jack, the last of whom in every picture was always the cutest kid you ever saw.

So don’t say you don’t know what I look like.