Friday, December 31, 2010

I am Actually Reading Right Now

When one is alone a lot, as I am, one thinks about things.  I mean, I might be reading an article and a word or a thought reminds of something and then that leads to something else and suddenly I find myself mulling something that has nothing to do with what I am ostensibly reading.  Yesterday I got my latest New Yorker and, as is my wont, I began reading it from front to back – rereading all the synopses of current Broadway plays and films available at certain esoteric locations around New York City, and the letters to the editor and so forth, and today I started an article on the artistic director or whatever it is of a fashion house of which I have never previously heard.  I read these things (the article preceding was on the Vatican Library) because the writers published in the New Yorker are so gifted that everything is interesting when one of them writes about it. 

The first mental digression occurred right off the bat because there was a photograph of the subject of the article - a German named Tomas Maier, whose first name is really Thomas, but which he altered for reasons which he justifies one way, but which I suspect really boils down to an attempt to make himself interesting.  The article described him as looking like a “hipster monk” (one trick of writing for the New Yorker is to master the art of oxymoronic descriptives), so I was interested to see the actual photo of the man, and, by gosh, he DOES sort of look monkish in a roughly good-looking way.  What I noticed particularly, though, is that he has beautiful hands, and it was this that got me off into one of my usual tangential reveries. 

When I was younger, I thought of beautiful hands as those which occurred in paintings, rather than the actual appendages of breathing humanity.  I refer to those medieval depictions of the Virgin or saints with the gently arched fingers which give no hint of actual musculature within.  There is the graceful hand of Michelangelo’s Virgin in his Pietà, or those various depictions of Jesus or of saints with hands having the two first fingers raised and the thumb extended.    Sitters for portraitists seemed, before 1880, to drape their hands nervelessly in ‘beautiful’ formations.  But some years ago, I began to realize that when I see someone whose hands look attractive to me, the attraction lies in the strength and utility that is exhibited.  I like hands that look like they can – and do – perform actual work.   Fingers should look strong and capable.  Most people think, consciously or not, that their mother’s hands are beautiful; certainly I do.  I like looking at my mother’s hands, there is history in them.  Even now, I see the fingers that held Kleenex when she commanded me to, “Blow!”, that held the hankies moistened with her own saliva to wipe spots off my face, that sprinkled flour over the greased cookie sheet, that grasped the handle of the kitchen pump to draw water from our cistern; and they look warm and able and beautiful and alive to me.   I like men’s hands to look like they can grasp things.  People talk of the unpleasantness of a limp handshake, but I don’t much care about the handshake; what is a real turn-off to me are limp hands themselves, and tentative, ineffectual gestures.

I turned the page in my article, and there in a space embraced by the article I was reading was a poem entitled “Crepuscular” by Kimberly Johnson.  Now, ‘crepuscular’ is one of those words I have to look up again each time I see it, because I never remember from one time to the next what it means – even in a general sense.  It is certainly one of the ugliest words in all of English with its overtones of scabs and pustules and general crustiness, at least in the spelling and pronunciation.  I am pretty sure it is nothing of the sort (I pause here to look it up AGAIN).   There!  I knew it!  It means something beautiful: twilight – how did something so lovely as twilight (or the pertinence thereto) get an ugly word like crepuscular, which sounds like it should be applied to urban decay or gangrenous sores? 

At any rate, as soon as I came to the end of my current paragraph, I read the poem which I rather liked.  But there was a line that again sent me wandering – a tangent within a tangent – that spoke of autumn sunlight:
“…That’s what the sun does
In autumn, slanting southward and brownly
Between the hunched houses of the neighborhood.”

What struck me, besides the fact that I liked the poem, and this fit right in, was that I had been thinking just yesterday very specifically about how the light of winter was different and how the light of early morning is so full of hope and promise, while the light of late afternoon is so different, even though each is hitting the earth at the same angle, only from different directions.  Is it because I know one is morning light and the other evening?  They seem to look different; evening light seems to have more gold in it, as if a little blood had spilled into the silver gilt of the light that morning brought.   Autumn and winter light (like the ‘beautiful’ hands of old paintings) seem to hold no power, no oomph, as though the sun had a headcold and was just going through the motions.   In a larger sense, it seems eerie that something I think of one day out of a clear blue sky (so to speak) shows up in my reading or conversation or TV viewing the very next day.  It seems to happen all the time. 

When I think about things, such as the above, I find myself composing paragraphs about them.   I am rather poor at visualizing things I haven’t actually seen, for instance picturing a forest or beach or whatever.  (I can never picture my green summer yard when it is winter, or my barren winter yard in summer.) I have to think of a particular beach or forest, and then I wind up all tied up mentally with what happened there or with whom I went there.   I think in words and although I see the people and places about which I dream when asleep, there is an element of narrative, of being slightly aloof or at one remove from what is going on.  The lead character in my dreams, the “I” person, is frequently not me.  I know the thoughts and emotions of the dreamer but he, or sometimes she, is not the me I know when I am awake – we differ in appearance and age, in motive, in our concerns, our remembered histories.   I have attributed much of my descriptive or narrative abilities, such as they are, to the need when I was younger to hide, and to pose as someone I am not.  In this sense, my past was a gift.  Many of the painful periods of any life are gifts in disguise, very costly gifts, it is true, but once the rough stuff is past, there is a wonderful pool of awareness that is left in which to bathe.  It seems to be every parent’s aim to shelter his child from the very things that made that parent so spectacular.  “I don’t want my kid to suffer like I did,” is a two-edged sword.  The desire that one’s child have a better life than one’s own kind of depends on the definition of ‘better’.  People do not love chocolate for its sweetness alone.  It is that tiny edge of bitterness that makes the sweetness special. 

And now, if I am not to add this New Yorker to the guilt stack of those I have not finished, I must return to my reading.  See how I never get from A to B without a detour?   Now, Mr. Maier, if we may resume…

Oh and one more digression (in case I mysteriously disappear from Blogland).  I am, as we speak, drinking coffee lightened by CoffeeMate from a huge can which, when I got it home, appeared to have been previously opened.  I thought of all those articles about product tampering, and then I thought about all the hassle of returning this can or the cost of throwing it out, and I did the math.  Besides, isn't it as likely that someone hid an emerald ring inside the can as a shot of anthrax?  Live for the moment, say I, and the moment doesn't seem to call for a trip back to Sam's Club.  So if I am not here tomorrow, it wasn't the emerald ring...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Touching on Christmas and so on

For once, we here in Reedville were too far north to get hit by the big blizzard.  All those folks who chortle smugly as we get our ‘lake effect’ snow most of the winter got to chortle out of the other side of their mouths and it serves them right.  Yesterday we got an inch or so of snow, the kind that falls in big fluffy flakes like that which one sees on Christmas cards.  A rather odd sight was to be seen in my very own back yard, where there is a spring of water which keeps right on seeping forth come hot weather or cold.  This spring was lined with a flock of robins who apparently hadn’t heard about the migration thing.  They were strung out along the area where the water movement leaves a line of earth visible in the snow and seemed to be eating something, but I can’t imagine what sustenance could be found in that cold water.   Surely no earthworms could be abroad in these temperaures.  Is it possible that they eat the forget-me-nots that seem to spring up in any patch of water around here?  Actually I knew that robins don’t really fly south – or at least a lot of them do not, despite people believing that that is what they do.  In winter robins retreat to woodlands and are rarely seen, giving rise to the migration belief.  I read somewhere that old-timers used to say that if you just kick the bushes near a woods in winter you’ll find the robins.  I am not sure who was out kicking bushes in the snow to discover this, but it sounds like he had a lot of fun.   We here in the northern boondocks have our simple pleasures. 

Christmas, which I generally dread, was not bad at all this year.  As long as I lived on the farm, Christmas was magic.  Then, after I moved to California, it was a lonely and sad time for me for a while – so much so that I scheduled some elective surgery over Christmas one year just to get out of the house.  Then I met Tumwell and all the magic returned.  Tumwell was a total kid when it came to the holidays.  He brought the magic back for me.  I had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t sneak a peek at presents before the appointed day.  I am a purist; I want to open everything at once on the actual date.  He always wanted to open gifts early.  We finally arrived at what became our tradition: gifts were opened one minute after the midnight between the 24th and 25th.  On Christmas morning we would rise late and go to Tumwell’s Mom’s house for Christmas dinner.  She gave me the nicest gifts.  One year she gave me a pair of tap shoes – the real deal.  I still have a teak rocking chair she gave me.   Each year the Christmas meal got more elaborate, because Tum’s mom always included every dish I had expressed a liking for among all the meals I had previously had at her table.  Once Tum asked her why she was making something or other again for Christmas and she said, “Well, Dave likes it,” and Tum said, “What about what I like?”   He was kidding of course, but it was true – she seemed to take me very much into account in her meal planning.   As her youngest son, Tum was expected to eat what was he was given. 

But then I went to Saudi, and Tum and his mom both passed away, and since then Christmas is more of a hassle than anything else.  For the last several years Caitlin, a newly married niece (well, ‘newly’ when it first started) has invited all of us in the area to her home for Christmas.  The first year this happened she was living in a house in the town south of Reedville where my Mom also lived, but she and her husband have since purchased a beautiful home on the main street of a village an hour’s drive east of us.  This house was built in the 1890’s and then was carefully restored by its previous owner and is a perfect place for a Christmas.  The problem is that more and more of my brothers have been returning to the area and this means more and more people for whom I must buy gifts with less idea of what to get them and far less money to do it with, now that I have retired.   This year, I had a couple of things I bought in Bali that served as gifts, but then I was forced to get out and do some shopping for the rest of the gifts.  I got out earlier than usual – that is TWO days before Christmas, instead of one, but actually once I got out and started shopping, I kind of enjoyed it.  I felt pretty good about most of my purchases.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t have to get the “perfect” gift, just something that fell into an area in which each recipient was interested.   After that, it was relatively easy.  I have a tendency to get caught up in a right-wrong axis in things, and to forget that the world doesn’t rise or fall on my choices.  I did propose (and my proposal was eagerly accepted) that the adults exchange names next year and each would buy only one gift.  That will make future years SO much easier.   Besides, this year Zeke (Caitlin’s husband) has installed a pool table in the cellar of his home, so there was something fun to do.  Do you know what the difference is between a basement and a cellar?  When a basement is more than half underground, it is a cellar.  I know you will thank me for this info, and you are free to act superior and correct others when they misuse the terms in future, as do I. 

It looks like the weather will finally rise above freezing later this week and by New Year’s Eve it will be in the 40’s.  By then the northern areas will have clear roads; the real north is remarkably efficient in clearing the roads.  It is the border states that get overwhelmed and cancel everything when there is more than an inch of snow.   I am debating driving to northern New Jersey to visit Freddie, a man I met a few months ago, for New Year’s weekend.   Freddy is a very nice guy and his story is rather interesting.   He married his high school sweetheart and they had three boys.  When the boys were grown – or nearly so - Mrs. Freddie, who is quite an attractive woman who had received some flattering attention from men on the prowl over the years, began to fret that she had somehow missed out on all the fun and dating that other girls had.  Eventually she left Freddy for one particularly attentive admirer and they got a divorce; however Mrs. Freddie found that these men on the prowl had no intention of doing more than tasting the honey and then flitting onward to the next flower, and she ended up somehow blaming Freddie for her subsequent unhappiness.  To get out of a fraught environment, Freddie moved to a little villagedeep in the wilds of northern Jersey.   One day a fellow employee at the company where Freddie has worked for more than 20 years invited him home.  The man (for it was a man) came onto Freddie, and Freddie, who has maintained his youthful face and physique, says he thought, “Well, why not?” and thereby discovered that he liked the guys even better than he had liked the ladies, something that had not even entered his head previously.  Thus the way was paved for my entry into his life. 

Freddie likes to play music and is planning to trade his electronic keyboard in for a ‘real’ piano; he says he likes the feel of the real thing.  Although I have not yet persuaded him to play for me, I noticed that the sheet music he had on the rack of the keyboard was very complex stuff.   He had a large photograph of the Shirelles on one wall and when I said I really liked them and asked if he liked them particularly he told me that the lead singer was his aunt.   He brought out the program from her funeral in northern California and some other things that he had acquired because of the relationship.  So I am kind of dating a girl group by extension.   Well, kind of dating.  We seem to like each other, and he is a really nice man.  He is intensely prosaic, though (other than liking guys), and very much a family man for his now-grown sons.  The only thing ‘gay’ about him (other than the sex thing) is that he is very fond of Broadway plays.  He regularly attends these with an elderly female friend who shares his interest.   

I have only visited Freddie once, several months ago when it was still early autumn, but I have been thinking about him a lot lately.  He said he wanted things to be an equal type thing; that he didn’t want me to be the one who always did the travelling (he is about 5 hours from me).  I think he meant this, but he is a true Northern Jersey/New York City type who thinks anything outside a narrow radius centered in Manhattan is the back of beyond.  He thinks I live somewhere within shooting distance of Sarah Palin, I think.  So he is worried about driving in the winter so very far north.   I thought this whole situation was languishing, but while I was in California, I found my thoughts turning to him more and more, so I e-mailed him and suggested I visit again.  He sounded very eager to see me.  I talked to him on the phone the other day and he is still all for seeing each other again.  It makes sense for me to go there rather than the reverse because he works and I don’t.  He views a trip here as a big undertaking, while I think a five hour drive is not all that big a deal, if the roads are clear. 

We have nothing much in common – he is not a reader, he likes very different TV fare, he has no interest in the kinds of things I like, he will text several times a day, whereas I never text and only write e-mails – usually far longer than a text message.  But he is a decent honorable man and we find each other fairly attractive.  Maybe something will grow, maybe not.   He is a creature of habit; he would have been glad to stay married and be Dad, then Grandpa.  The gay thing came as a surprise, but now that he has discovered it, this is where he wants to be.  He has been on the same job for 20 years; he plans to stay another six or seven years to qualify for a full pension.  I never stayed on any one job for more than six years and that six year job was in Saudi where I had to sign two-year contracts.  And I certainly never planned six years ahead for anything.  There are a lot of reasons we are not a match, but maybe there are also a few reasons we can be.  Either way, I am looking forward to visiting again.   And then we’ll see. 

Despite all the news about poverty and kids not having any gifts this year, I ask you, have you ever been in a house where there is a child, where that house is not jammed from one end to another with every imaginable brightly colored plastic toy?  It seems almost obscene to me the number of toys a child has in the present era.   And so many of them perform , leaving the child a spectator.  Where are the Tinkertoys, the Lincoln Logs, the Legos, the Etch-a-Sketch?  I am just asking; it was the toys that allowed me to build things that I loved – those and crayons and marbles – I made up more games using marbles than the manufacturer ever dreamed.  When I was in Sam’s Club, I saw a huge super-size barrel of Lincoln Logs and I almost bought them – for ME.   It seems to me that most parents awake each day and say, “Hmm- it is a new day, Kimmie needs a new toy!”   Maybe it is just me, but I do know that the most pampered kids with whom I went to grade school never had nearly as many toys as has every kid I have seen lately.   

And a Happy New Year to YOU.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Touch of Dyspepsia

It certainly seems that no matter how often I feel I am freezing my butt off, said butt never seems to diminish in any visible manner. Quite the contrary.

This thought occurs to me because I have risen a few hours ago at 4 a.m. to a house that seems colder than the hubs of hell. I am still on California time – and apparently still on expectation of California temperatures. The thermometer reads about 20, although my eyeballs are frozen so I can’t be sure of that. It is just getting to be that time of dawn when the snow looks blue. And so do I.

I actually lay awake for some time before arising and thought about things. One thing I thought about is the incredible annoyance of those fake words that I have to type on most people’s blogs in order to post a comment. I have no objection to typing the letters shown; what bugs me to the last nerve is that these letters are often displayed distorted in such a way that I can’t tell which letters are showing. This irritation is such that I am often tempted to change “What a darling little peachy-weachy!” in response to someone’s posted baby picture to “Somebody ought to smother that uggo in its crib”. Usually my mental response to the picture of any baby (including those of relatives whom I love dearly) is that it looks like a lump of Play-Doh with eyes.

One must be cautious about such “honesty”. I once made the mistake of giving my honest opinion of the attractiveness of persons who are visibly pregnant, and I thought the walls would crumble, such an uproar did ensue. And this from GUYS! I am sorry but every time some magazine (always aimed at female readers, I notice) publishes revealing photos of pregnant ladies, I am grossed out.

I am equally grossed out by sonograms. Has no one any sense of privacy (I hardly dare say “decency”) any more? Jeez Louise! A perfect world for me would be one in which children were presented in public for the first time about the time they begin to resemble something recognizably human. Recognizable, that is, to the beholder who is not terminally suffused with the ‘awww’ disability which renders folks incapable of actually seeing what these squashy little bundles of flab and wrinkles look like. It is bad enough seeing my own collection of flab and wrinkles without the sudden shock of rounding a corner or entering a room and being presented with something like that.

I returned to NY to find a snowman built on my deck and the interior of my house clean and decorated with Christmas tchotchkes. I haven’t been able to find anything I needed since my arrival, so thorough was the cleaning, but it sure is nice to come home to someplace that looks like the dwelling of`a person who has evolved beyond the ape stage of existence, that is, someone who does not live in Kansas where such an evolution is banned, I believe. I ought to invite someone to visit quick before I mess it up again, although since I had to cook something last night that ship may well have sailed.

I have noticed that ships sailing have been in the news rather a lot lately. Last night they were yammering on and on about some Mediterranean cruise which hit rough seas. Passengers were rather miffed, I gather, and most of them seemed to have spent the time holding up their telephones and taking pictures, when they might better have engaged in taking cover. I am looking forward to the day the news shows someone gasping out his or her last breath while a streetful of people, including the emergency responders, record the process on their cellphones. What is it with people? What the hell is the use of a bunch of pictures of people you don’t know undergoing some sort of disaster? I am totally down with the secret satisfaction of watching someone else get the pie in the face that should have been yours, but it seems a little crass to stand there taking pictures while he or she wipes the fruit filling out of his or her eyes.

Anyway, I was wondering why the hell people go on cruises in the first place. I personally would do it for the adventure. If I just want to lie in the sun, I’d save a thousand bucks and find a beach. If I want to get from point A to point B, I’d take a plane. For several thousand years, people have understood that venturing out to sea was a risky proposition. There was a time when one had no choice; there were no other methods available for crossing the wine-dark seas. But now there are options for safe and convenient crossings. I have been watching irate passengers complain that their vacation is ruined and so forth. How is it ruined? Now they have something interesting to talk about. Hasn’t anyone noticed that a tale of an uneventful voyage puts the listeners to sleep – or if they are lucky, to flight? "The food was so delicious!"  "The sun was so - well - sunny!"  Here is a rule of thumb, people: A picture of you on a deck chair is not interesting, but a picture of a deck chair on you IS.

One of the rough voyages that was featured in the news this past week was one to Antarctica which encountered very rough seas. Color me naïve, but I can’t come up with any scenario wherein I would embark on a voyage in frigid polar waters and expect smooth sailing. I am just saying, here. I suppose anyone daft enough to travel to Antarctica in the first place is daft enough to expect comfort. I imagine half of them are hoping to book lodgings at the five-star Ross Ice Shelf Sheraton.

Are you dreading the next six months of Kate and Wills overkill as much as I am? I did notice, though, in the official photo that came up every five seconds on my news program, that old Prince W seemed to have a very fixed smile, rather as if Kate were standing on his foot with her Manolo Blahniks. The ones with the stiletto heels.  I don't know why HE looks so pained - SHE's the one getting the balding guy.

Speaking of news overkill, am I the only one who thinks that the news media should ignore publicity hungry ideologues who use newsworthy occasions to get attention for their crackpottery? I see the fool that got all kinds of attention by threatening to burn some holy book or other has now been invited to London by some asshole or other. And don’t even get me going on the jerk that pickets any funeral which will get him more than two lines of news coverage. I do have to say, though, that anyone who gets that hysterical on the topic of homosexuals must be fighting pretty hard to keep his hands off any pretty young man who walks by. Whyever else would he care so much?

Those of you who do not live in the brackish backwaters of Northern California, and thus might have missed the news from that quarter, might like to be aware that the world is scheduled to end (or the End Times to begin, or whatever) this coming May on, if I remember correctly, the 20th. Round about then, anyway. This is a heads up for those who thought they had until 2012 when the Mayans calendar runs out to prepare for the end. Those wishing to divest themselves of their worldly belongings in order to purify their lives in preparation are invited to contact me to receive convenient shipping instructions for any automotive, gold or electronic non-necessities of which they may wish to dispose.

And now the day is upon me – whatever shall I do with it?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Man in the Hat

My grandmother had finished high school and begun a job of some sort when her mother died.  As the eldest daughter, she discovered she was expected to abandon her job, which she enjoyed, as well as all hope of a 'normal' life, and to devote her life to caring for her younger sisters, her brother and her father.  This was made clear to her in a most graphic manner; the time was just before Christmas and her father took her to her mother's closet, told her that henceforth she would be wearing the plain clothes therein, and she discovered that her name had been removed from all the Christmas presents intended for her, and her that younger sisters' names had been substituted.  That is, at least, the story as my mother told it to me.

Grandmother had recently visited a friend in some small upstate New York village, and on the night of that day when her father laid out her dull grey future as spinster caretaker to her siblings, she packed a bag, sneaked out of her house and fled to the friend.  She never saw her father nor most of her siblings again, except for a sister named Daisy who tracked her down years later and who resumed a relationship with Grandmother and her ever-increasing brood of girls.  Shortly after moving to the village of her friend, Grandmother met her future husband and they were married.  Grandfather was a good man, the marriage seemed happy, and they ultimately had 10 daughters and a son, of which 8 daughters lived beyond childhood.  The son died shortly after his birth and two of the daughters died in the great flu epidemic of 1918, a year in which my Mom, the sixth daughter would have been two years old. 

For some reason, my Grandmother had a restless streak which manifested itself in an odd manner; every year or two she insisted on moving to a new house, usually within the same small town where the last house stood.  Grandpa apparently was unperturbed by this and his job didn't change; there was no apparent reason for these moves, at least none that my Mom ever knew.  Eventually Grandmother had lived in all the available houses in the town where Grandpa worked, and she moved to a larger village some distance away, while Grandpa remained in the town where his job was.  My mother hated moving with a passion, and at first remained with my grandfather, while her mother and sisters moved to the larger village.  Eventually she joined her mother and, later, Grandpa ended up in the larger village also.  I have never got a sense that there was any breach between my grandparents, and from tales Mom has told, they were people to whom others turned for help when someone needed bringing to the doctor or the like.  Apparently the local doctor in the smaller town where Mom spent her younger years called upon Grandpa so often to collect or return patients to their homes that Grandpa acquired the nickname "Doc" which followed him all the rest of his life.  I know Grandmother only from my mother's recollections; she died at the age of 49 , from complications of epilepsy the same year my Mom graduated from high school and when Mom's youngest sister was only two years old.

I suspect that I may have inherited my Grandmother's restlessness as evidenced by my desire, which is almost a lust to go someplace else from where I am at differents points in my life.  Had Grandmother lived in my era, I suspect her moves would have been to far greater distances.  A woman of her era was terribly circumscribed.  I don't think the impulse to move was rooted in a desire to get away from either her husband or children - there was just an intense desire to try some new place.  I completely understand this; I never leave things, really, instead I go to new things. 

When my father asked my mother to marry him, she laid down one condition: from the start they must own their own home.  So much had my mother hated moving all the time, she had no desire whatever to move ever again.  Consequently, my parents purchased a three-story frame house at 512 Goodling Street, an important north/south street in the city, but not so busy as Main Street or other commercial avenues.  This house had an apartment on the second floor which my parents rented to a childhood friend of my mother and her daughter Bunny who was my age, while the husband and father of this pair was off in the army fighting World War II.

So few men were at home during the war that there was a manless culture in the city.  My father had been denied entrance to the service because of his age, although he had tried to enlist; he had married at the age of 41.  This was a time when each neighborhood had its own commercial center, and neighborhood groceries were found every few blocks.  Mom tells me that so many young wives were living alone, with no one to babysit while they shopped for groceries, that it was common for a line of infants in carriages to be left outside the larger grocery stores in the commercial district which lined the avenue a block north of my parents' home.  Young mothers might come into the store and call out, "The baby in the blue jumper is trying to crawl out of the buggy!" or "The little girl in the pink dress is crying!" and the mother oif the child in question would hurry out to fix the problem.  No one worried about abduction or mishap beyond the normal type of mishap which might occur at home as easily as it would on the sidewalk outside the grocery. 

When I was three, my Uncle Bern who had inherited the family farm in Reedville, 15 miles south of the city, developed a severe heart condition which rendered him unable to continue the strenuous business of farming, though I believe that was the life he loved with all his heart.  His wife, Aunt Delia, was the quintessential house-proud farmwife, who dearly loved Uncle Bern.  It was agreed among the members of the family that my parents would swap their home in the city for the Farm.   Thus my mother, who had always been a girl of the towns and villages, came to be a farmer's wife.  She had hoped for a life in the city and she had hoped to remain in the house she and Dad bought when they married, but I never heard her complain about the new circumstances in which she found herself.  Late in life she said she felt it was much better to have raised nine kids - eight of them boys - on a farm in the country, rather than in the city.  For my father, however, it was a bitter disappointment.  He did not like the regulated life of a farmer with the never-ending morning and evening milking, the lack of time off, the lack of control over one's time, the endless round of planting, cultivating (i.e. weeding crops), harvesting and so on. 

Frequently Aunt Delia would have me visit her and Uncle Bern in the city; they were childless and they loved me very much.  Dad and Bern's sister Agnes (also childless) lived across the street from Aunt Delia, with her husband Mick who was a car salesman and who owned all the buildings on the short block of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst streets - the side of the block which faced Delia's house.  Uncle Mick's buildings consisted of three three-story houses which were broken into apartments and a long multi-car garage which looked like it had six parking slots - at least there were six square windows in the facade of the one-story wooden building.  Aunt Agnes was my favorite aunt and she adored me.  She was a wonderful aunt for a child to have, but she was a sore trial to any adult who knew her.  I didn't know it for years but she was a severe alcoholic, whom I think may also have been mildly agorophobic.  In a "Chap Record" I found at the Farm later, there was an entry that predicted she would end up tired and nervous, bent over a washtub.  Chap records were a fad, something like autograph books, only instead of containing autographs, they had entries by the owner noting each person he or she met with a humorous note as to how they struck the writer. 

Aunt Agnes loved having me to stay with her for short vacations.  These visits were very odd times; she was a weird combination between a fussy guardian and a permissive one.  She taught me how to behave and how to use every possible table utensil including shrimp forks and fingerbowls, without ever once giving any kind of meal except a quick one at the kitchen table at which I was never joined by anyone except my brother Gary when he was also invited.   Things not eaten at one meal showed up again at the next, not out of some form of punishment, but just because there it was and there we were.  Gary and I learned early that Aunt Agnes would not hear us go to the back door and throw things off the back landing - Mick and Agnes' apartment was on the second and third floors of the corner building, so uneaten food made a most satisfying arc as it descended into the back area below.  Often Gary and I would check on our next visit to see what stage of decay some of the larger bits of food had attained since we threw them. 

Aunt Agnes - or Aunt Delia, for that matter - thought nothing of sending us to the shops which were a block north of Opal Street between Goodling and Belhurst.  So long as we didn't have to cross a street, they saw no need to worry about our safety.  The only street we ever crossed was Opal Street itself, since the two aunts, who had a bit of a rivalry over my affections, lived on opposite sides of that street and I had to (and wanted to) see plenty of each.  On these forays of perhaps 200 or 300 feet, I was given all sorts of safety instructions: look both ways, don't dawdle, watch always for the automobiles which apparently were believed to lie in wait with drivers who neither saw us in front of them nor who had any other purpose in life than to mow down heedless children. 

When I was six and had begun first grade, I was visiting one of the two aunts and I had with me the money to do some Christmas shopping for the first time in my life.  I think I had to purchase a gift for the draw at my school at the local five and ten on the commercial block which had a selection of enticing toys on offer.  On this occasion Gary was with me, and we were allowed to go by ourselves (as always) to do our Christmas shopping.  The modern parent might think that my aunts were incredibly lax in their oversight, but at this time it would have been far more unusual for any child to be restrained from exploring his own block.  Children seemed to live outside on the local sidewalks.  We seemed to live in a world that cherished us; my aunts, especially Delia, from whose house Gary and I actually made our sortie, were actually more overprotective than otherwise, but protection of children in those days meant cautioning them about heights, cars, sharp objects and electricity. 

At the five and ten, Gary and I separated and he was looking at one side of a toy counter while I was in the aisle that ran the length of the opposite side of the counter.  Counters in five and dimes were generally like long tables; one could see across the store over them.  Those stores did not have the high walls between aisles which block one's view as does Walmart or other stores of today.  While I was looking at a bunch of hard-covered books on the counter, a man in a grey three-quarter length coat and a fedora-style hat - the winter uniform of any man in public in those days - came to stand beside me and opened a conversation.  He asked my name and age and if I went to school yet.  I answered everything truthfully and in a respectful manner.  Although I had been cautioned about dealing with strangers, I always imagined strangers as being men or women on the street.  This was in a store and thus the other constant injunction to always be polite and respectful to adults was in operation.  The man asked if I had any girlfriends, and I recall being a little confused as to how to answer.  I kind of intuited, even at that age, that the cool young man always would reply, 'yes' to this question.  I both knew and kind of didn't know exactly what was meant by the term 'girlfriend'.  I knew that it meant something different from 'friend who happens to be a girl', but I salved my conscience by recalling that I DID have plenty of friends at school who fit the category 'girl' so I said 'yes'.  I also was beginning to feel uncomfortable with this man - he stood very close and spoke in an undervoice.  He seemed so old, and his voice held something different from the jocular tone in which my uncles, or my Dad's friends, spoke to me.  I looked for Gary but he was engrossed in something in the next aisle. 

The man then went on to ask me if I knew "what girls like."  I felt a sort of sick fear slide down inside my chest to my stomach.  I didn't dare move away - he was a GROWN UP - and I didn't dare lie, though I SO didn't want to know, because somehow there was an aura of - not really menace - but sort of sickness, like watching someone cut open an animal, so I said, "No."  I never felt physically threatened, just a sort of horrified feel of the Earth shfting unpredictably under my feet.  I have since had dreams - though they probably have nothing to do with this incident - where something is very wrong, but all around me people are unconscious of anything unusual and are proceeding with daily concerns and I can't seem to communicate the danger.  This felt exactly like that dream.  The man proceeded to tell me a number of graphic scenarios, about bodily areas in girls whose appearance and purpose I wasn't really sure about.  I was in a panic.  I felt smothered by this man.  I desperately willed Gary to look up, but he didn't. 

Finally a sales clerk started to come in our direction - not because of the man, but because she apparently had business near us.  The man quickly stepped away, breaking the spell that had held me frozen.  Quickly I darted around the counter to Gary and whispered urgently, "Come on!"  I had already gathered a couple of gifts, and being the orderly and regulated child I was then, I felt I had to stop and purchase these before leaving the store.  The whole time I was frantic with worry that the man would return to me and I couldn't yet speak to Gary because for some obscure reason it was imperative that the store's personnel not hear me, but the alternative to making the purchases was to return each item to where I had found it (it never occurred to me to just drop them anywhere other than where I found them), and doing that felt far riskier.  It would have returned me to the man's proximity.  As we scurried home, I told Gary all that had been said, and I think it scared him too although he was always much braver than me and I really don't recall his reaction. 

When I got back to Aunt Delia, I told her the whole, word for word as I recalled it.  If you knew Aunt Delia, or at least knew how she appeared to me, you would realize the extent of my shock.  Aunt Delia was nice through and through.  Such words as I was saying are not ones I would EVER have spoken to any adult, let alone her, under any other circumstances.  Aunt Delia had grey hair which she wore in a bun, and wire rimmed glasses.  Her character matched her appearance - a grandmotherly, kindly, sweet, decent woman who thought only of ginger cookies and family pictures, not of getting girls alone and touching them in dirty places.  She was all that is meant by the word 'genteel'.  Of course she was shocked and horrified, and happily she did not for a minute make me feel bad or as if I had somehow done wrong. 

I don't think I was terribly marked by this incident, although I can still picture the man in his grey coat and his fedora.  I can't picture his face, though.  I became, perhaps, a little warier for a time and probably had a healthier - though not morbid - awareness of how to behave toward people I didn't know.  I never ascribed those occasional dreams I mentioned above to this incident, and even if they were a result, they have not been a serious factor in my life.  I think my relatives reacted exactly correctly - they were on my side, they didn't behave as if I had caused the problem, but I don't recall that they became markedly more protective, or stopped letting me go about on my own. 

When I was in my first weeks of college, about a dozen guys in my dorm were having a bull session and somehow the topic of these kinds of encounters arose.  All but one of us had experienced something similar.  My roommate (who had become a six foot plus basketball scholarship athlete) had actually been knocked down and fondled briefly by a man who used to watch his Little League games.  He didn't seem terribly harmed.  It seems to me that more harm is done by overreacting to these incidents in the child's presence, or by instilling terror.  I speak, of course, of boys, and of incidents that do not reach the level of abduction or actual sexual relations.  Boys know this behavior is aberrant and they don't like it at all, but they should not (in my opinion) be terrorized into thinking every man will do this sort of thing.  Reasonable caution, not vigilante gangs of men bearing torches and pitchforks, seems to be a reasonable response. 

I wonder, though, what was this man's motive.  He made no move to get me to go with him, nor did he talk about male privates; he spoke only of girls.  Was he a bitter and angry man who saw a happy boy shopping and who wanted to spoil the boy's confidence?  Is there a kind of thrill  in having a conversation like this with a frightened and unresponsive boy?  I never felt he would physically bother me (I could have been wrong), but I felt like my psyche or my view of the world or my joy was being besmirched.  I didn't feel targetted: I felt, so far as I thought about it, that any boy standing where I did would have been equally a victim.  I was very frightened, but not of being attacked.  It was like things didn't make sense for a while.  There was no order to things.  I think it is like seeing one's guardian or caretaker being drunk; where is the safe certainty of life? 

I am not complaining or regretting; I am more curious than anything.  What was happening from the man's point of view?  Was he mean?  Envious?  Destructive?  Turned on?  I like to know why people do things and how they see their own behavior, and I really can't fathom this man's motives or his reward, whether realized or anticipated.  It was never a big deal later in my life; I don't even know why I wrote about it.  I was just thinking of that house on Goodling Street and my times there and then I thought of this and it was something to write about.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catching Up

I guess I need to post a new blog, if for no other reason than to give JennyD more space to comment. Yes, I have suddenly had such an upsurge in Followers that what to say I wot not.  I know my Shaggers new and old know that 'wot' is a real word and not a mis-key, such a clever lot as they are.

As I said to OneGirl on her blog, a blog is a public forum and one has no control over the comments made.  I wouldn't have it any other way.  To Marge and JennyD who apologized for lengthy comments, more power to you!  I love long comments which are mini-blogs in themselves - I do it all the time on others' sites.  Hey, if it is TO me or ABOUT me or inspired by me, I just can't get enough.  Fear no more.

I am feeling concerned about this current entry - I learned long ago to write on a text editor and then cut and paste into my blog, since I have lost long and wondrous posts by trusting blog websites not to delete all ere I published.  But I do not wish to leave an entry inadvertently on this computer, since I am writing from my friend Emily's computer at her home in Northern California.  As I have said before, I do not share my blog with people I know, nor do I use real names.  This allows me to write things I don't care to have shared or picked over by my near and dear.  Nor need I worry that someone will be offended by a misreading (or even a correct reading) of things I write.  I have noticed that even such a canny lot as my Shaggers occasionally read something entirely different from what I thought I wrote - how much more likely for a reader who has exposed nerves and who still disagrees with me over whose pencil that was in third grade and who holds a grudge therefore, to do so. 

I came to California from Western NY on the train with my brother Luke and his girlfriend Carol.  It was all-in-all a nice trip.  Just as we were about to cross the Mississippi River, Carol went downstairs in the observation car to a tiny snackbar/booze bar for a teeny-weeny double vodka, and while she was there, Luke and I heard a man shouting therefrom.  When Carol returned, she told us that a middle-aged female conductor had observed a man stealing a number of items from a girl's purse and putting them into his own backpack.  The man defended himself against the charge (rather weakly, I thought) by saying, "Just because I look like a derelict doesn't mean I am a thief!"  As a defense, I do not think this will enter the annals alongside Clarence Darrow or Johnnie Cochran. 

The conductress glommed onto the man's backpack and told him he was not leaving with it, and the man struggled to pull it away from her, whereupon Angela, the lady behind the counter flew out like an avenging Fury and told the man to leave her colleague alone.  Angela is a lovely lady who looks about 35, and had told us she was 59.  We spent a fair amount of time talking with her.  She had been a magazine model when young (she had a beautiful face) and was quite an interesting lady, with a lively wit.  Between them, the conductress and Angela managed to keep hold of the backpack, and after the train crossed the Mississippi into Iowa it stopped athwart a main street in a tiny town for an hour while the local gendarmarie boarded and removed the faux derelict, blocking a queue of traffic and leaving the drivers therein to wonder what malign impulse had led them to drive down that particular street in the middle of the night.  Angela later told us that occasionally passengers are lulled into thinking that the quiet informality of a train makes it an easy target for the less-than-upright.  "Au contraire," she assured us (although those are my words, not hers), there are undercover agents from the ATF and DEA on board, among others.  Further, if one boards in Chicago with contraband and is caught in California, he can be (and might well be) charged in every state the train crossed.  Our naughty derelict, by prolonging his efforts through the crossing of the Mississippi had rendered himself liable to prosecution in both Illinois and Iowa. 

Our only other event out of the ordinary was having a freight that was in our way develop a flat wheel (!) and delay us two hours while the situation was remedied; happily this happened in the midst of spectacular Colorado scenery.  The fine folks at Amtrak schedule the California Zephyr so that we see the Rockies and Sierra Nevada by day and cross Utah and some of Nevada by night, which is just as it should be.  If you have two days (from Chicago) or three days (from NYC) and are in no hurry, do take the train.  Bring a blanket, for sure.  The meals are OK, and the rule is that you are seated with whomever has an open table.  We had uniformly interesting tablemates - a man from NASA, two women travelling to see an ailing father and grandfather, a young man with a new job in Colorado.  There was also a young seraphically handsome self-described ski-bum and snowboarder with whom I had a great chat about surfing and about books.  I started talking to him because I saw he was reading Gatsby - it turned out that it was his second time reading it - and I got another lesson on judging a book by its cover, so to speak.  And this man's cover was pretty darn awesome - he had a mass of blond curls and the face of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. 

The wedding was not bad; although I did have to endure a Catholic Mass; the groom's family were quite convivial and I had a great time with his mother who was just a few years too young to have made the Hippie scene in San Francisco and who wanted to hear all about it - WELL!  And she didn't even seem sorry she asked!  There're manners for you!  Many of my siblings - Lucy, of course (mother of the bride), Luke, Liam, George and Jack - were at the wedding with their various offspring, so I had a pretty good time - best of all, Jack did NOT bring his dreadful girlfriend.  I had a date that didn't work out so well - although it was kind of fun and ended with a late meal at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Berkeley where I got to stammer a few remembered Arabic phrases to an interesting lady of Morrocan and Palestinian ancestry.  I then came to stay for a couple of weeks with my friend Emily - my best friend whom I have known since my surfing days in Hermosa Beach many years ago.  She went to a junior college briefly, back in the day, with Squeaky Fromme.  How's THAT for a name-drop? 

It is great being with Emily - some days we do nothing, and the town she lives in has a truly great used bookstore, as well as some nice places to eat.  Emily is a great reader and we love to talk for hours about books, the old days on the beach and everything in between.  We also have no trouble being quiet and doing separate things with no pressure to interact constantly.  Being with Emily is like being at home, only with someone to talk to, and with someone else doing the cooking.  Bliss, in short. 

I realize I am departing again from my effort NOT to make this a diary-type blog, but I do feel that I should aim for at least two entries a month, especially since I am swamped by a tsunami of new readers.  OK, a ripple.  But of such quality.  And I know, quality rather than quantity should be my motto when writing, but I fear I am not sufficiently miserable just now to plumb the recesses of memory for the makings of the better entries.  And I have come up with one or two ideas for alleviating my rather blah existence of late - I hope these last beyond the return to NY and actually get put into practice.  I should be home around the 15th, then there is only Christmas to get past and voila! - a new year.