The Day Straps on a Spur

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Alas, this Monday bears the longing of a Saturday with the reserve of a Sunday afternoon and the intoxicating bouquet of a lost Friday latenight. My, how we love a holiday here at Marklewood. It’s a day filled with last calls, last chances, and last stops. Yet the final rest of such a weekend nears; I name it Lazarus and smile. Everything ends in its moment and seems to earn a nickname — lovingly or otherwise.

The February air gusts across the garden, tempting the already miscued bulbs. As I look out at the ravages of  winter, I at once see the pusses chasing the bathing cardinals and the hummingbirds surveying the rooftop. The hydrangea raises it lavender poms. And those pesky tree-frogs scamper in the memory of Mr. Washington.

Henry forces his meow as if to remind me: it is just a day, and one that unfolds far too quickly. It will soon be dusk and the season’s balm will return. Before I’ve even reconciled the day’s longings, my Tuesday will be dressing in its Monday finery, scrambling for the ideal accessory.

Perhaps the day has finally come that I address my life in a week’s measure and take a firmer hold of my whip.

(Image: “Portrait” by Carlo Randanini, 1877.)

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Pussy of the Month

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For several years and in fact eight, I played a silly game with the pusses. More accurately, it was an imaginary pageant, under the guise of “Kitty of the Month”, which pitted the five indoor cats as reluctant entrants. What began as a goofy screensaver prank ended in jovial tradition, as each month I tallied points and ultimately proclaimed a winner.

Of course, there were no formal competitions as I am not totally pixilated, at least not yet. I subtracted points for poor behavior,  such as knocking over a vase of zinnias leaving a pool of water on the dining room table. Or attempting to navigate a bookcase’s clutter, sending a rare and antique porcelain to the floor and, ultimately, the trash. Or sneaking outside only to, later, bring a few stowaway fleas back into the house, necessitating a fogger or two and a flea treatment for even the innocent pusses.

Cats earned points by catching intruders: mice, lizards, bugs, and other waylaid critters here in the woods. Sometimes, one of the pusses would sit politely in the corner while Jon and I ate dinner, not greedily scheming on how to purloin a piece of fried chickens while heads were turned; such behavior was rewarded with points and, of course, table scraps. And sometimes, points were awarded simply for making it through an entire month and not getting any demerits. As I was the judge, I constantly looked for new ways for them to improve their totals and thus shake up the competition.

The cast of characters here at Marklewood was a little different back then. Of course, the perennial favorites, Henry and Pfluffer, were here. Sam was here but recovering from a small psychotic break and, under a doctor’s supervision, taking Elavil. Tartuffe, who has been gone now for over three years, was the senior indoor stray. Finally, there was Luke, the beefy, muscular, and extremely good-natured grey-striper who disappeared a few years ago. We always sensed that Luke had a few other “homes” in the vicinity and chose to take up residence elsewhere … perhaps where there were fewer cats and even fewer silly pageants.

The results were fairly consistent. Between Henry and Pfluffer, one was usually the winner and the other, the runner-up. Pfluffer always scored points for his attentiveness to the printers and for his photogenic portfolio, assembled with Jon’s endless photo shoots. Henry was the poised, svelte, and congenial puss … comfortable on the catwalk with his faint white “eyeliner” (or so it seemed). Surprisingly, Sam did in fact emerge “Kitty of the Month” one June. The other four had gotten outside a few times and, having earned no points to offset their misbehavior, ended the month in the negative. The lovable “psycho-kitty” won by default with a tally of zero.

Eventually, and after many such mini contests, the pusses and I finally lost interest. The cats were older and more concerned with sleeping. And I had realized that my obsession might have placed the five in an unhealthy and unnatural competition, although it did ease the impact a bit when they were naughty and I felt they were receiving some penalty of substance.

Of course truth be told: in my heart I knew the best of all the pusses was one of the outdoor ones, Ishkabibble. She stood in the driveway each and every day waiting for Jon and me to return home from work, often in torrential rain or cascading snowfall. She simply couldn’t leave her post until she knew we were safely home and order was again in full force at Marklewood. She always made sure all of the other outdoor pusses were fed and safe. Always.

It was that noble and gentle puss that showed me the true folly in my silly pageant, one in which only the indoor cats were eligible. We human types can be so thoughtless sometimes.

Although I am somewhat certain that Sam is still proud of that June a few years back when, for a brief reign, he in fact wore the crown. Cats have self esteem issues too, of that I know.

Coming Out: Three Nights in Georgetown

The-Weary-Shepherd-Heather-Watts-painting“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” (Rollo May)

I suspect just about everyone has to come out in one way or another, as we grow into our adult skin and assert our sense of self worth and identity. Often, but not always, we test the waters, as we aren’t quite certain yet what price, if any, we want to pay for such liberation of spirit. I had two such major epiphanies in my life, the first being the almighty and temporarily defining one of my “announcing” my sexuality, my gayness. The second was the much longer process of embracing my artistic leanings, thus releasing the most enduring of my familial restraints.

As a teenager, I frankly didn’t think too much about sex, except for my curiosity as to why I had no real urges. I simply thought that one day I would wake up and just be overwhelmed with libidinous yearnings. I was obsessed with academics and extra-curricular activities until well into college, when at last that day came to be. I was in the second semester of my freshman year at UNC and I started noticing that men (and women) were returning my notice with bold flirtation and titillating innuendo. My libido was beyond aroused. And by spring break, my virginity was cast to the winds of Chapel Hill by a Norwegian graduate student.

I found myself gravitating towards artsy, Bohemian types and slowly separating myself from my high school chums. I wasn’t afraid per se of my sexuality, or for that matter very conflicted. However, co-dependent people-pleaser that I was so deftly trained to be, the terror of rejections lead me to remove any such threat. By the following year, I had a cohesive group of cronies who were either gay or at least fully supportive. I also had a large group of associates from whom I kept that secret, thereby creating a double life. Eventually those associates diminished into acquaintances, eventually becoming just lost names in a dusty address book.

The only family member that was privy to my “alternative lifestyle” (which is veiled 70’s jargon for homosexuality) was my sister Polly. In 1979, the two of us had joined my mother’s family in Washington, DC, for my Aunt Ruth’s funeral. One night, the two of us decided to brave the icy roads and go to Georgetown for cocktails. There we were in Mr. Henry’s enjoying libations, made the sweeter for her as she was only seventeen and didn’t even need to offer her fake ID. When I finally told her that I was gay, she knowingly chided me that she and her friends had been debating that possibility for years. Of course, Polly would be the easiest to approach of my immediate family.

At age 24, having finally moved to Washington, it was indeed time to end the parental madness. My mother and I had gone out to dinner in Georgetown and were enjoying martinis when I just blurted: “I need to tell you something.” Her reaction was surprisingly mixed. She smiled reassuringly as if she had been anticipating such a revelation for a while. On the other hand, she was surprised, I believe, that I chose a crowded outdoor café, by the C & O Canal, as the venue. She grabbed my hand and simply offered: “you don’t need to continue. I know.” From that evening, until she died unexpectedly a decade later, my mother was usually actively involved in my personal life, including bad break-ups, like that with the anti-Christ.

Six months later, my father was in town to give a speech and, yes, we met for dinner again in Georgetown, this time at a more reserved eatery. We casually discussed politics and, at some point near dessert, I grabbed the appropriate segue and just told him. He was shocked, dismayed, and started to argue that my assertion, suggesting that, in my mid-twenties, it was perhaps a phase. I was floored by his refusal to accept me; he had always been the ultimate in liberal civil rights leaders, spewing freedom prose for as long as I had a memory. Yet, with me, he slipped into some deeply-seeded Catholic guilt trip that blind-sided me and eventually sabotaged our relationship.

By that time, I had essentially no remaining high school ties. I had confided in one close friend back when we were college seniors. His outrage scared the hell out of me, and kept me from ever confronting anyone else, except for when events made it obvious. Ironically, I ran into him when we were in our mid-thirties and he, too, had finally come out and never acknowledged his rejection of me. Over the years, most people seemed to just know … either through gossip or assumption. But no one seemed to really care. We were all more concerned with paychecks, insurance, and health issues. And I am more than certain that a few cronies from my teenage years were always a bit envious that I had a freedom that their choices denied them.

Tonight I seem to be embracing memories of my family and friends during that challenging time. Old wounds and comfortable images have swirled since before sunset. It might have been the Rick Wakeman album I was listening to; or the email from a recently-friended high school classmate; or the moist bouquet of a July night. But tonight I was thinking about the “coming out” part of my journey. It was a lifetime ago, yet the process still makes me smile. I haven’t been down that rhetorical road nor dined in Georgetown for many, many years.

(Image: “The Weary Shepherd” by Heather Watts, 2013.)

Buying Tampons: A Hellish Late Night Turn

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July 7, 1974, was one of those rhetorical days from hell! I awakened at sunrise to my mother’s determined bang on my door. In a cruel and twisted knot of fate, my great uncle Fred had passed away the night before and we needed to drive to Washington.

We were to assist in helping my grandmother and great aunt with the funeral arrangements, as well as seemingly non-ending mutual consolation.  Naturally, the Universe was perversely smiling as I had been out the night before celebrating my eighteenth birthday, enjoying a pool party with my cronies, drinking beer, and pursuing relatively harmless misbehavior.

Of course, my mother wanted me to drive the six hours, probably because she was confident that I’d speed!

By eight, we were on the road. I was driving, denying to myself that what I was feeling was my first hangover in life. My mother was on the passenger side, vacillating between staring out the window at the “ditch lilies” and sharing memories of my eccentric loner of an uncle who had just turned sixty. Sixty and his last breath seized by natural causes!

My sister, who was twelve at the time, tried to keep the air as light as she could but disregarded boundaries and crossed many lines in that annoying and predictable pubescent manner.

We arrived at my grandmother’s house just after lunchtime. We took my grandmother, great aunt, and cousin to the funeral home to finalize arrangements. My sister and I were rather voiceless that afternoon, limited by both our ages and lack of experience in such matters.

In fact, the only death I had ever felt was that of my father’s father who died from a heart attack on Christmas Day when I was three.  Although he gasped, struggled, and quickly died after he showed me how to play dominos, I have no memories of that wintry day except for those of laughing and nurturing.

But fifteen years later, we were now preparing to bury the man who was essentially the only surviving male in my mother’s family, save me. My grandmother and her three sisters were all widows and had each only given birth to daughters. The only man of the family was a recent high school graduate, one with a throbbing headache of remorse.

We checked into a hotel so that we could have privacy and my mother wouldn’t have to deal with any unnecessary family dysfunction. Then, through dinner, and well into the evening we discussed Uncle Fred: how he was such a loner, had no friends, and never even dated.

He had been employed exclusively by the British Embassy for almost four decades, since he graduated from college. He lived upstairs in my Great Grandparents’ family home and rarely came downstairs, except to go to work or prepare his vegetarian meals.

Near ten o’clock and the air still a-swelter, my mother needed me to run an errand: to go to the store to purchase tampons for her. Naturally being a young man, I was mortified by the certain embarrassment. But I put on my yellow high tops, ready to oblige, as I was nothing if not dutiful.

Of course, the Universe was again smiling, if not guffawing. The only drugstore open at that hour was the 24-hour Peoples Drug at Thomas Circle. Mind you, it was the mid-seventies and that area of the district was relatively seedy, a mixed bag for a curious yet naïve teenager from North Carolina.

I parked on Fourteenth Street just across from the entrance, painfully aware that the crowds on the sidewalks were much more street savvy than I. The area was filled with adult entertainment “emporiums” and an air heavy with both hormonal and criminal intent. I reluctantly and sheepishly walked into the store, quickly grabbed that most unholy of feminine grails, and got in what seemed like an endless queue.

My discomfort was compounding with each second: I was the only non-African American customer which made it impossible to blend in discreetly. From all the stares and pointing, I sensed that folks were sizing me up. Was I some sort of troublemaker? Or some lost Kansan tourist who had wandered in by error? What was with the gold wire rims and Polo shirt?

I finally checked out and scurried to my mother’s new Volkswagen. Oh my God! (I feel compelled to write that out since internet shorthand was yet to be.) Three prostitutes were sitting on the car’s hood, smoking cigarettes and preparing for what was most likely some intermezzo of “toying with the teenager”!  Getting into the car, starting the ignition, and attempting to put the car into gear didn’t even begin to thwart them. They chuckled, fascinated and fueled by the blushing reactions of an innocent.

After about fifteen minutes, they were either bored or mindful of the clock and lost revenue. They abruptly waved goodbye as I rushed to Massachusetts Avenue, following the long, picturesque route to the hotel, listening to “Band on the Run”. I might’ve gone several miles over the limit but the stereo’s volume was most assuredly too or three notches higher than was needed for full aural appreciation.

When I got to the hotel, I took my mother that pink carton and went downstairs for a relaxing beer. (The drinking age for beer was eighteen at the time.) No sooner did the waitress return than an older woman, perhaps in her late twenties, approached me, inquiring if I wanted company. Terrified yet again, I mumbled a bit and just went back to my room … where I knew I would be safe from the unknown.

As I nestled in bed trying to read, I mentally replayed that long, stressful day more than often. It was a day of many firsts, rites of passage, and stepping stones. But as I turned off the light to try to get some sleep, I realized my hangover at least had dissipated, and with neither fanfare nor notice.

For many years after that July night, whenever I traveled anywhere with my mother, I first always asked her if she packed all necessary provisions and precautions. I never had to purchase tampons again. Over the next 36 years, however, I went on to endure many heinous hangovers  I have thus compiled a cache of tales of Washington’s proper, but sordid, underbelly.

(Image: “In the Pavillion of the Red Clown”, Robert Williams, 2001.)

De-facing My Alters

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My primary alter ego seems to have yielded more than an over-simplified dual nature, as I sense the impact of nineteen muses. My Yin and Yang have added Yuri & Yolanda to their ranks, with draftees in queue.

Ahh, here’s to that most mothering of mollies, Eve! Perhaps we underestimated her as well. The Twelve Faces of Eve perhaps. One warm and once misspent April evening, she debuted as merely two-faced!

Born on the cusp in the Year of the Laughing Owl, I still feel the bruises.

I have been counting transgressions all week long, and am well past seven, having found two dozen that are potentially lethal in both spirit and mortality! Of course, my rosary beads are in my nightstand’s bottom drawer. No, these are not the still pure and pristine amethyst ones! Those are the very beads which, when in Sr Jane Raphael’s fourth grade class, were bestowed upon the St Thomas More spelling bee champ. My every day rosary  is stored in a discarded Altoids tin and hidden inside my briefcase.

It is on this very Monday, one of frustration and most recent of last resorts, it becomes the proper hour in which to reveal the revered beads. Hard days demand the biggest of guns, with those petit bloodstone orbs as ammunition. I simply held out as long as I could.

Today, my Id, Ego, and Self all yearn for a fourth so they can once again play Bridge both competitively and without any dummies to facilitate the arduous drive home in the ease of the HOV lane!

I hear the cling and ring of Jon’s “wake up” bell. I grab my iced coffee and head downstairs to create some half appealing manner in which to present oatmeal. Henry is laughing at me again … in that cocksure, all-knowing, and most feline matter. He nudges the mouse as if to offer: “You’d never be able to handle nine lives, you novice!”

(Image: Robert Thegerström, “Självporträtt med Pipa”, 1898.)

A Loner’s Nutshell

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Like that of most of my peers, my life has involved constant self-evaluation and subsequent re-prioritization of attributes, skills, and goals. Yes, I was an introspective child who drove his parents to both distraction and the occasional martini.

As an elementary school student, I was always very determined to be the best student in the class. And when I say “driven”, I of course mean with both obsession and unwavering passion. Although I always had a crony or two with whom I would sometimes go to a movie or construct a fort in the back yard, I was most often a loner in my own world of fairies, magic, and stellar report cards.

By the time I was in middle school, I was reserved, pensive, and overly-mannered … admiring those classmates who were more outgoing and exuberant. I set out to aggressively change that pattern by directing the school play in ninth grade. By the end of the year, I had met my goals and was infinitely more comfortable in social situations and, often, the leader. That pattern was my mainstay right up until college. I never really thought about sex and merely tolerated my body’s changes.There

When I finally left home and went off to UNC, however, those stirrings took firm hold of my psyche. I finally cut my hair (I had long wavy hair in high school), paid closer attention to my style of dress, and quickly took charge of my physique. I lost the extra weight I had gained as a teenager; I was one of those who clearly sublimated sexual yearnings into food cravings. And sometime near Homecoming, I lost my virginity — on the third floor of Old East dormitory. I rather enjoyed it although, I must say, I nearly fainted. By Thanksgiving, I was dating a Norwegian grad student I had met at Fowler’s Market, while buying beer for my roommate. In those days, I was always aggressive when facing and embracing life changes.

In my twenties and thirties, I definitely had my share of suitors and interested parties but unfortunately fell victim to the charms of the anti-Christ, propelling a period of dysfunction and recidivism. I travelled constantly, for both work and play; wore a suit, Alan Edmond shoes, and distinctive neckwear almost every day; and finally realized I was allowing another person and false priorities to drag me off-stage. It was indeed time to start kicking and screaming … and thus seize the control of my life that I had demanding and fine-tuned since early childhood.For the next twenty or so years, my main focus always seemed be.

While I was always extremely competitive at the workplace and usually promoted quickly and often, that all seemed to happen subliminally and with little effort. My parents had divorced when I was a senior in high school, my father moving to Dallas and my mother selling the house and moving. I’m certain any anarecidivism. I travelled constantly, for both work and play; wore a suit, Alan Edmond shoes, and distinctive neckwear almost every day; and finally realized I was allowing another person and false priorities to drag me off-stage. It was indeed time to start kicking and screaming … and thus seize the control of my life that I had demanding and fine-tuned since early childhood.

In the early ‘90’s, I returned to North Carolina, via a misspent season or two in Fort Lauderdale, and quickly settled into a career with an innovative design firm as well as a new, healthy, and enriching relationship with Michael. My lifestyle allowed me to create my own boundaries: I grew a goatee, boxed up all my neckwear, and wore boots and shorts most every day of the year. Within a few years, my suppressed eccentricities had all re-emerged. I was happy, fulfilled, and complacent.

Then, Michael passed away in 2001. My employer folded. My house fell into foreclosure. I was alone, broke, and overwhelmed with grief and issues needing my attention. I no longer even had my two King Charles Spaniels, Hamilton and Cabot. We had given them to a friend when Michael’s illness kicked into high gear. Unfortunately, they had become a distraction and aggravation for a forty-nine year old man whose brain was rapidly dying.

Since those sorrowful days, I have moved to the hinterlands of outer Raleigh, rebuilt my life, and happily commune at Marklewood with Jon and our brood of strays. I am no longer compelled to be the best student, dress stylishly, or even worry about my physique. Perhaps I have gone full circle, with a few odd detours along the way.

Despite my few close friends, I am again essentially a loner who believes in fairies and magic. They are both the secrets and the miracles of the Universe. This time, though, I have a likeminded playmate, Jon. At age 57, I have finally found what I never really knew I wanted. Perhaps, if I don’t recriminate, explain, or wallow in analytical obsession, I will have time to enjoy life.

Godspeed to all of you, my friends.

(Image: “The Golfer” by Colette Calascione, 1997.)

A “Hail Mary” in My Pocket

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My grandmother’s funeral had been a small, gravesite service with little fanfare and only a handful of people. Afterwards, my sister and her husband, my mother and her gentleman friend, my cousin, and I all went back to my sister and her husband’s hotel suite for afternoon cocktails, in respect to both Irish Catholic traditions and fear of the deceased.

The afternoon grew increasingly weary and morbid as most chose to recriminate, condemn, and frankly bitch. By late afternoon, the most positive emotion emanating within those confines was sorrow and grief, most probably from only me. My brother-in-law Scott, who was cast out a decade later for immeasurable sins, pulled me aside and suggested that perhaps we escape the increasingly maudlin rantings and informal eulogies.

I reminded him that his hotel was on “P” Street, in the thick of the District’s gay ghetto. Although there were innumerable options within a quick walk, our best destination would most likely be a gay bar. Despite Scott’s many sociopathic traits, which didn’t surface until years later, he was still a very non-judgmental man. Moments later, we were across the street at Friends, a lively piano bar, both savoring our first cocktail of the day … well first made by someone who hadn’t been to a funeral earlier.

A few hours passed. Our tab had swelled far beyond both prudence and appropriateness . We awaited my sister, who was to join us when the others went finally went home. In the meantime, we played several rounds of “arcade trivia”, which I handily and rather effortlessly won.

My sister finally arrived and, while she and I compared notes about family behaving badly, Scott went to get her a libation. Yes, at some point, wailing and moaning had ensued, the dysfunction reaching new heights, even for my family. I was relieved I had missed that portion of the show.

Scott eventually returned, beer for Polly in hand, accompanied by a half dozen assorted homosexuals. It seems, enterprising scoundrel that he was, Scott was taking wagers, placing odds, and daring challengers to beat me at that blasted video machine.

By ten or so, a crowd of at least twenty had gathered … all cheering, daring, and drinking with abandon. Yet my streak was intact and Scott was developing quite a bulge in his pocket. In the background, one man was jumping up and down, straining to get a view. In fact, he looked a great deal like Scott, except perhaps a few inches shorter. But he even had the early signs of that dreaded and early “male pattern baldness”! The whole scenario was getting more and more absurd, yet it showed no sign of slowing down. Except perhaps that an hour later, the crowd had thinned a bit and the “jumper” had finally made his way to us and was engaging Scott in conversation.

It seems his name was George, he was a banker, and he lived across the river in Arlington. At least that was all I retained from our introduction. We eventually abandoned our games and retired to a different wall, where the four of us politely chatted and listened to showtunes from the piano player, whom up until them we had ignored and tuned out. George and I flirted a great deal as the chemistry between us had its own energy.

At one point, George quite aggressively and arrogantly leaned over and asked my sister permission to take me home, his being such a proper Southern gentleman. She presumed that he meant to give me a lift to my grandmother’s house just outside DC along the Potomac banks on the Maryland side. He corrected her, stating that he wanted to take me to his house in Arlington, in Virginia … to which I promptly said “no, thank you!” Naturally, my sister and her husband need only eventually cross the street to return to their lodgings.

We continued to drink, albeit at a slower and more dignified pace, and at times even sang a few showtunes among the crowd of men who had filled Friends. Scott, my sister, and I had long forgotten about the anxieties, morbidity, and drama of an Irish Catholic family at its own funeral aftermath. Scott and I went back to the trivia machine eventually, while Polly and George repositioned themselves by the window to enjoy a cigarette.

The next morning, I awakened, a bit disoriented, exhausted, and, yes, more than a little hung-over. I looked around the room which seemed unfamiliar and gazed to my left. All I could really distinguish was a clump of dark brown hair and the hint of a bald spot. Oh my God, I slept with my brother-in-law, I deduced.

Panicked, I started imagining the end of any and all familial ties I had remaining. Certainly, my sister will never, ever speak to me again. What havoc had this evening of alcohol and gamesmanship wreaked? Surely, if my sister had any say-so, there’d be yet another Irish Catholic funeral in the offing.

The body stirred, slowly turned around, and I gasped. I had indeed slept with the anti-Christ, the name I less than fondly gave him years later. But that morning I simply called him George. And I quickly got dressed, demanded coffee, and made him drive me home … to the other side of the river.

I needed to get my day jump-started. I had a lot of “Hail Maries” to get out of my system. Of course that was almost twenty-five years ago and a full five years before any inevitable revelation. My own personal apocalypse was yet to unfold. It indeed, however, began that night at Friends, on an eventful night that demanded attention and atonement.

Such a purge, in fact, took years.

(Image: “Die Brücke” by Wolfgang Lettl, 1978.)

Chopping Down the Family Tree

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The other day I toyed with the idea of updating the family tree my parents had so diligently compiled and outlined when I was a wee lad. But after a week’s consideration and an evening of brainstorming, I allowed myself to become distracted and, then, simply retired the notion. A great deal has transpired in the almost four decades since my parents divorced and that loving project thus became a painful reminder of broken vows and severed relationships.

The past six months have found me at home most days contemplating a litany of issues, recrimination, and withered dreams. While Jon was nestled in his bed convalescing and usually improving, I quietly either sat downstairs and read; explored the world via my anemic browser; or just drifted into obsessive thought while I engaged in the few household missions that seemed worthwhile.

It was one certain Tuesday of my birthday that my consciousness streamed rather specifically to creating a 21st century family tree. With Jon so sick, mortality seemed a constant issue. Further, I kept thinking how in my immediate family, there would one day be a morning on which only my nieces would remain to carry such a torch of lineage and ancestry. And I felt certain their memories would be sketchy, inaccurate, and rather gapped. I located a fresh legal pad, filled my trusty fountain pen from my old Mark Cross days, and sat at my desk to begin. Thus began chapter 1017 in my own litany of “best laid plans”!

Before long, I had gone back at least three generations, finding that a pencil with an eraser would have been the tool of preference. There had been at least ten re-marriages, not including those unions of mine that felt like marriages but were neither entitled nor simply thus titled. My mother’s family was a definite matriarchy, ironically producing only female progeny and surname bedlam. The Siebers were primarily more patriarchal, allowing that surname to rather “colonize” the phone listings. The rough result after my first session was a tree that looked like it had either succumbed to some dysfunctional blight or been pruned my some cock-eyed woodsman. My father’s side was teeming with branches while my mother’s side, although tidily catalogued, was in serious need of genealogical Miracle Grow.

I placed the legal pad in the lower left drawer of my desk, which to a right-handed person often becomes the catch-all for forgotten papers … and went downstairs for a smoke. As I stared out the windows, I thought of my friends who were as close as siblings and how, by all right, deserved a branch or at least a leaf’s mention. I imagined the faces of relatives that sadly died before my nieces were born: my mother, for instance, died when my oldest niece Sara was yet a toddler and was now known to her only by name.

My well-intended family tree project had become a challenge, quickly associated ever further with lost relationships, or those that never were. And I had become melancholy over so many aspects of the daunting task. That, my friends, is where the “aft gang agley” adage surely becomes relevant.

Perhaps, ‘tis best to pursue some form of oral tradition … perhaps over a series of dinners with Sara, Sophie, and Aubrey. I owe that much to those that were long gone before the girls were even conceived. I also need to pay tribute to the Moores, Cavanaughs, Estrellas, Siebers, Longs, Plows, Neubergers, and, yes, even the Liddy family.

Sadly, the concept of the family tree has become fodder for middle school projects and independent studies. It’s likely time I re-open that drawer again! Sense of family, as my grand parents knew it, is fleeting.

(Image: “Arbre Généalogique”, Claude Verlinde, 1980.)

Vlad Basks in a Chartreuse Damask

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I’ve always been one of those zany designers that fights clichés yet feels quite at “home” in them. I’m certain that you know the type. If uninspired by the project, the tools, or (heaven forbid and forgive) the client, I might adopt my reserved persona and, if pressed, slip into indifference. However, if I sense the smallest window from which to crawl out of the “box”, my adrenalin perks, my mind races, and I become “Vlad”. Granted, this somewhat theatrical persona may only emerge when a magical client walks into the showroom, an eclectic point of commonality is mentioned, or when the moon is a cornflower blue.

I never apologize for such enthusiasm because it is authentic and, if channeled properly, is my best tool for selling a concept or application. If the enthusiasm is returned, the client and I at once acquiesce to the moment. We have likely created a look that is not beige, not similar to those found at large retailers like that “Ceramic Silo” or “Palette and Peck”! My immediate world is a haven of sublime hues that is cloaked in a Universe of, naturally, the truest of earth tones. And that “beige” demographic seems to be encroaching on the unrestrained, imaginative, and color-driven (of what I call the) “Free World”.

Clearly, if such a topic is twiddling on my foremind, I am indeed at work. Today, I amused myself thinking of the great clients that I have met in the past few months. Images swirl of: a vermillion sectional appointed with a multitude of eclectic throw pillows; the peacock blue velvet arced sofa backed with a modern and lush tapestry and finished with pillows of a French graphic; or the room that includes cork-covered upholstery, copper accent tables, and a huge floor lamp sculpted from a giant burl root. Fabrics can indeed evoke a reel of ecstasy, and often in rather satisfying both the culling and the euphoria.

I have often thought of the design process to be not unlike “dating” with its nuances, filtered information, and specific level of flirtation. And the best dates “listen” so I strive to be attentive to dialogue, needs, and cues. Sadly, however, consultations never involve libations, although I once had several pomegranate martinis with a client in her 900 sq.ft. downstairs bar. One day, I shall reveal details of the chartreuse mohair livingroom that we created that evening, complete with Baker chairs dressed in a lavender Belgian toile.

Already, I have worked myself into a frenzy of Neuro-delic design with an emphasis on the unbridled, overstimulated, perhaps under medicated, and occasionally misbegotten visionaries. Although few in numbers, this karmic brethren makes my job fulfilling and reaffirm my celebration of the individual.

Vlad is content.

(Image: “Picking Up the Pieces” by Julie Heffernan.)

Bidding Adieu to Puffing Consorts

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I rarely smoke at all these days but, when the chance stolen opportunity prevails, I always smoke alone. None of my friends partake, although a few tend to slip into such past habits rather easily when libating and making merry. Jon walked away from cigarettes and alcohol on a sweltering and crucial morning in September, over twenty-seven years ago. And, frankly, the Twelve Noble & Apostolic Pusses of Marklewood all feign allergies and disgust at the vile weakness, except for Sam, the “psycho-kitty,” who from his years of elavil dependency appreciates a proper buzz in any form.

So here in this barn of domestic device, all smoking is thus relegated, sequestered, and confined to the downstairs sunroom. I half-heartedly try to open a window or door whenever I sully any of my majolica ashtrays, but certainly there is yet residue. My exotic and ancient begonias and orchids smile sweetly. Alas, they gasp in both choke and horror, assured that we’re neither buds nor badminton partners.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to quit smoking altogether, locking the habit in a metal strongbox. But for now, I shall imagine that I have an illustrious circle of smoking buddies. They are witty and clever, and ever so tidy. Although, ultimately, I may just be the only one of us with a real tale.

Saturday’s Game: Halftime’s Allure

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Alas, in a world smitten with chaos and sorrow, how sublime a July day can be!

The world’s timepiece stops for the weekend. The clouds waft in the heavens. And, in the woods, the pusses frolic with the winged daredevils, who taunt them with their airborne shenanigans.

Of course, the squirrels of Marklewood are simply “less gifted” and yet unaware of their disadvantage. But then again, there is rarely a feline “underdog”, at least within our odd little clowder. Before such tailed rodents threw their first summery aim at Yorick, they were doomed to failure.

That, my friends, is a sign of restored equilibrium here in the hinterlands. Or so it is when the sun glistens so and time stands still. Jon is eating, albeit like a reluctant field mouse, drifting off into dreams, and listening to NPR.

I smile privately and remember what life was like before, assured that it will return in an even grander form!

The Early Shift

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There was a time when the cats would wake me up without fail at 6AM. or earlier. They’d lick my face, purr loudly in my ears, or walk across me as if I alone were the bridge between the two “separate but equal” nightstands. I would always reluctantly and quite slowly emerge from my downy cocoon, head downstairs, and retrieve their favorite play-toys from that special drawer. The pusses would be at last content, frolicking and engaging in their catty games. I, of course, would be thus awake and no longer angry at what seemed once an imposition.

Then on some later day in yet another season, Henry, Pfluffer, and their cohorts would again greet me at 6AM. Again, then would lick my face and start their dawny regimen. But instead of prodding me to their cache of balls, mice, and milk carton tabs, they stood defiantly by their giant food dish, looking up with their best Dickensian stance. “Please, SIR, we want some … more.” Of course, I’d replenish their bowl and return to preparing java and jumpstarting my own day of missions. And, yes, by that point, I had always forgotten that only minutes earlier I had so wanted to luxuriate longer in the warmth of bed, continuing my escape into dreamland.

About a year ago, the morning ritual took yet another turn. Again, the five pusses licked and purred until I could deny them no longer. Naturally, I groggily headed toward the stairs, but ‘alas and alack’ all five of them turned right as I started to turn left … as they went directly into the office. (I have noticed that, despite their innate bent on independence, they rally and join forces on important feline issues.) Pfluffer headed directly to the sink and started chortling and licking the faucet, while the others rallied around the water bowl. Communication for these pusses is oft a game of charades as I am not savvy or clever enough to learn their language. Yes, I filled their water bowl and had a realization. At least, I was by the coffee maker and need not deal with that creaky staircase quite yet. My day had thus started, and the sun had yet to rise.

And then at some point a few months ago, the daily “get the hell out of bed” dance changed steps yet again. At 6AM yet again, those five pusses did whatever they had to do to get me up. Pfluffer purred loudly in my ear. Henry licked the bridge of my nose with his sandpapery tongue. Sam nudged my right hand. And the girls. Hermione and Claudia, jumped over my legs in some twisted dressage, purposely crashing every now and then. It was yet the expected enactment of their finely honed assembly line of feline intention. I got up, put on my robe, and headed into the office.

Alas, no pusses followed me. None gathered ‘round the water bowl. Pfluffer was not in the sink. I looked back and all five had gone back to bed, vying for choice positioning which clearly ranked from my still warm pillow to the bed-foot. I chuckled and, returning to brewing coffee, prepared to greet the sunrise with a wider eye and a brighter outlook.

And so the morning regimen has been, my friends, for a few months now. I still get up like clockwork without need of a timepiece. And my five faithful cats return to bed and nap at least until eight, satisfied from a job well done. They got me up.

For cats are like us humans. They sometimes simply need to redefine their job or devise a new strategy, to keep their motivation fresh and spirited. They are clever that way … much more so than us humanly types. They implement change with little fanfare and never a balk. They just “git ‘er done!”

Admittedly, I fear what surprises their next direction will bring.

(Note: For the life of me, I will never understand how domestic animals grasp the concept of daylight savings time, since many humans can make no point of it!)

(Image: “Soup” by Shiori Matsumoto.)

That Quirky Swedish Bun Lady

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There is an enigmatic, crazy old woman who lives down the road from Marklewood.  Jon and I refer to her fondly as the “Swedish bun lady”. Her nickname name derived from the woman in the Salzburg music festival scene from the film “The Sound of Music”. True, the character, indeed Austrian and decidedly not Scandinavian, was the amusing over-zealous bower upon being awarded second prize. After Jon initially made the reference, the moniker stuck like day-old spaetzele, as I knew exactly what he meant.

Our neighbor (shall I simplify the tale be christening her “Bunny”?) wears rather meadowy, “old world” daywear with pristine lace-up bootlets and her hair in a bun or casual and unstable chignon. On some mornings, when she is certainly driven by whimsy, she will have two buns, not unlike those of dear, departed Buffy on TV’s “Family Affair”. Thus, my friends, is the natural and now aged and harried story of her nickname’s roots.

Bunny lives in a rather fascinating Victorian garden house, a large one-story gingerbread, appointed with cupolas, pediments, shutters. The home is slightly hidden from the road by overgrown hedges and a yard spotted with gorgeous and ancient trees. The once visionary planter left a landscape of mimosas, mahagonias, magnolias, and camellias. The yard was an impressionist’s springtime dream of fuzzy and blurred greens and pinks, framed by a low, very sculpted and hand-planed picket fence. Yes, I covet this house in a big way!

For years, we never noticed any human life at her house, wondering if perhaps it was vacant. But occasionally, we would see her bonneted head protruding from behind some shrub, as she pruned and pulled. Or we would catch a glimpse of her sweeping her long porch. Or we’d watch her surveying the overwhelming floral palette, acquired from a century of plantings and cultivation. In the driveway, we have always seen a well-maintained but late 70’s-vintage azure blue Cadillac.

We never saw Bunny at night, nor did we have any proof that she either went out or even existed past dusk’s clocking hour. Jon and I often speculated that she would read by candlelight or sip chamomile tea and gaze out one of the many windows, daydreaming about her life so long ago. Or, perhaps, she just let her hair down and danced around the house. Jiving, reeling, and ultimately bowing.

After a near decade, Bunny has thus become one of the many illustrious, partially imaginary characters at Marklewood. Sadly a few years ago, a “for sale” sign was posted in front of her home. Had the Swedish Bun Lady passed away or been moved to some care facility by non-caring folk?

Within a few days, the seven houses just beyond hers also had such signage. We were crushed: some dastardly developer would surely level the entire acreage and replace everything with non-descript track homes. Jon then went online seeking the asking price of the various properties, most notably that of our Miss Bunny, only to find that all properties were indeed owned by her. Curious. Had she fallen on hard times? Was she moving to warmer unknown parts? Was she simply selling out?

Six months later, a new sign went up, mentioning that the listing was now for eight houses on as many acres. Jon quickly found that the new asking price was a combined and hefty four million dollars! Egads! (I have always imagined that Bunny uses such an archaic expletive.)

Since then, we have seen Bunny several times, sometimes her Cadillac parked in the other driveways. We assume that she’s either collecting rent or engaged in landlady issues. To this day, none of the houses have sold; the Cadillac is still well-maintained; and there are occasional sightings of Bunny. We now, however, imagine her life quite differently. I readily visualize her at night, sitting by candlelight at her grand and “unset” dining table. She is probably savoring a very nice glass of sherry, puffing confidently on an imported blunt, and counting cash. A lot of green cash in a banking chamber awash with a cloaking pink.

Every now and then, we now notice that her car is gone at night so we imagine she has a suitor or at least a bit of a social life. Of course, she could just chose to drive to the ATM to do her banking, safe from suspecting, hawkish looks. Then, perhaps she dawdles as she returns finally to her “little city block” out here in the country!

That Swedish Bun Lady! I often assume and daydream that she has had such glaring misconceptions about us, the crazy catmen of Marklewood. Although I know she would’ve rated us well below herself at the Salzburg Music Festival!

Alas, after two years she has yet to surface. The house is for sale as one large parcel of acreages, with seven or eight high profile rental properties. She is one of those colorful neighbors whose identity has been augmented by our imagination. I fear that her tale is approaching its conclusion.

(Image: “Monkey Love” by Collette Calascione, 2004.)

That Damned D

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Although I didn’t actually meet Jon until 2002, the naming of Marklewood is most probably seeded on a certain day in June of 1974. I was a recent high school graduate, dating a girl from Winston Salem, and venturing the complicated route to her home for the first time.

I had just veered to the left for the seventh time, after a series of endless turns instructed on three pages of directions, when I saw at once the subdivision sign. Wedgewood. It was a tasteful stone and mortar marker under-planted with vivid azaleas. Yet, such a name struck me as odd.

Being from Greensboro, I grew up imagining all neighborhoods as having some ethereal, esoteric, or romantic name: Parker’s ParkSubjunctive Junction, or Hamilton Lakes Valley Mews Estates (to name but a few that I really don’t recall). Assuredly, no community would ever readily name such an area of fine homes after a product or a company, albeit a tasteful one. The name Wedgewood stayed with me as I continued further through Bethabara, a community which meant nothing to me, until I arrived at Whispering Lakes. Anne’s small tony neighborhood included a covered bridge, wooded landscaping, and artful and regal signage, which reassured and returned me to my provincial comfort level.

Wedgewood became the butt of many musings and wisecracks over the coming season, until that Christmas season when I went to fetch Anne to go to a party at Wake Forest. Horrors! Someone had rudely and spitefully removed the D from the sign leaving a giant “Wedgewoo” to greet visitors. It was weeks before I no longer saw humor in such a prank and most likely a year until it slipped my memory altogether.

Years later towards the late ‘80’s, I was a changed man. I lived in DC, was hopefully wiser, and living as an openly gay man. I was also living with the afore-referenced anti-Christ in Arlington, Virginia. Those of you who have followed my musings for a while will at once know that A.C. was a pretentious man, from one of the rarest  of species: Homosexual Republican Pro-Life Bankers.

We had just moved into a secluded area casually referred to as Lorcum Lane, with effulgent foliage and a view of the Potomac. Our first evening there, we sat on the cedar deck admiring the forest of black walnut trees, pondering our future and the strength of our martinis, when I just blurted it out. Barrowood. Yes, my once-betrothed’s surname was indeed Barrow, and I saw fit to bestow such a mutual honor on both him and our new home. Of course, I chuckled with sarcasm (read: bitchiness) as I obsessed for hours over the “christening”, its irony, and its future.

From that night, I oft referred to our home as Barrowood, especially when welcoming cronies, who would naturally appreciate the roast. I even got out my trusty wood-burner and made a placard for the deck, and secured it within view from both the steps and the garden. It rather embarrassed the anti-Christ as it constantly reminded him of his pretention, my joy in pointing it out, and his humiliation whenever we entertained. I did, however, remove the sign whenever his family came to visit, which I thought was an adequate gesture in fairness.

Several years passed; everyone in our world referred to our home as Barrowood; and I had finally realized that I could no longer commune with a Republican banker. I packed my bags and started to load my car trunk, when I remembered a deed undone. I finished what all that I needed to do and checked into a hotel.

That night, he phoned me, furious and puzzled: “why did you remove the from the sign on the back porch?” I informed him that the name initially was of my doing and that any letter was mine to simply take back. All is fair in such a break-up. He would just need to get used to life at Barrowoo without me!

Needless to say, he ultimately groveled and I returned home, perhaps a little wiser. But the thought of that errant “D” made me chortle with the most delicious of Catholic passive aggression. The modified name stuck. And not just in the privacy of our sanctum of dysfunction. All of our friends took similar delight in the humor in Barrowoo, as perhaps there was little else that was either joyful or humorous.

And today, some eighteen years after our final and most permanent “ending”, mutual friends tell me that everyone still refers to that home with that name, a legacy that reminds me that, yes, the Universe does indeed take care of its children. Barrowoo. I still laugh, but few know why these days.

Of course, Marklewood is different. The name itself blends both Jon’s and my names in some Zen-like harmony. The inspiration, however, was entirely different. The house is indeed magical and tucked away,  far from other trappings of a commercial civilization. The very name seemed like some hybrid of sparkle, miracle, and would. And on a June night in 2002, the name Marklewood just found itself thus blurted. Marklewood will always give us joy: not just its name but all that it represents and actualizes.

If that should ever end, the “D” is always mine to tuck into my knapsack as I walk proudly down the long, dirt drive to the road.

(Image: “Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard” by Claude Verlinde, 1982.)