Adelphia’s Talent: The Belle of Beautopia

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Poor Adelphia! Cast out in the third round of pageant elimination, she yet shrouds her disappointment with a poised preservation of grace. She tidily funnels her contested dreams into her ancient urn; smoothes the wrinkles that threaten her aubergine velvet gown; and gazes with a virgin’s sorrow at the fetching swimwear that hangs unworn on the couturier’s hanger.

Naturally she ponders the next-legged venue worthy of her sport and, although never so entitled, is hardly empty-handed. Her motives intact and unchallenged, she has her unrecognized geniality and her talent for such fancy well in hand.

Adelphia smiles a naughty and enticing smile for knowing her wry comedy was a last joke on those who spun their foul judgment into a skein of fear and rigging.

It’s assuredly sewn neatly into the gown of such a glorious brocato, friends. She is nonetheless a favorite contestant for next April’s “Beautopia on the Rhine.”

“It seems that now a glimpse of nipple
Will lead to a Facebook ripple.
Now everyone knows:
Censorship grows.”
(To the tune of Coke Porter’s “Anything Goes”)

Yes, the world has indeed gone mad!

(Image: “The Rainbow Catcher” by David M. Bowers.)

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Pubescent Notes: Casey at the Turntable

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I have been a music maniac since New Year’s Eve 1968. Since then, I’d like to think that I have evolved into more of an aficionado or, at least, a purveyor of the odd tune. But it was indeed a crazed, obsessive, and awestruck “maniac” that first expressed his doe-eyed and pert-eared wonder on that cold wintry night.

My sister Polly and I were home alone: she, in the den watching television and I, in my room … rearranging furniture and listening to the radio (AM even!) And there (in my most intimate of privacy) I had my first meaningful pubescent moment.

Casey Kasem’s “American Top Forty” countdown of the top tunes of 1968 was excitedly announced as just moments away. Not knowing what to expect, I left the dial in place and moved my bed toward an alternative wall. The radio, after all, might make a suitable companion.

And then it started: no. 100 was “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” … no. 76, “The Fool on the Hill” … no. 62, “Revolution” …
By that time the die was cast. I had taken my radio and pillows into the living room and opened the draperies to reveal the snow-blanketed ‘scape. I curled up on the sofa intently and eagerly, “all ears” on the deejay.

No. 31, “Spooky” … no. 23, “Magic Carpet Ride” … no. 12, “Hello, I Love You”
By that point, my sister had gone to bed (full of tease and mockery at my expense) and my parents had returned and, yet, retired to bed as well. I was alone, having the time of my life (for age twelve), and not about to leave the room for as much as a soda.

No. 7, “Judy in Disguise” … no. 4, “Honey” … no. 3, “Love is Blue” …
From that night on (until much longer than I’d care to admit), I listened to Mr. Kasem dutifully every week, maintaining a journal of my lists and a catalogue of all my records. By the time I graduated from high school, I owned over a thousand 45’s and probably three hundred LPs. And that was just the start: my collection grew geometrically … eventually veering to cassettes to eight-tracks to CDs to downloads. (Three of my neighborhood buddies (from way back then) are here on Facebook and will reluctantly attest to my proselytizing the merits of the latest turntable sirens, and thus often holding them hostage!)

And in 1968, the no.2 song was “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

I had purchased 45’s before that New Year’s Eve. My mother, Beatles fan that she was, shared her fondness for popular music and rock ‘n roll! At the very least, her car was always ebullient with the current sounds of the pop troubadours. (In contrast, my father always had his car radio tuned to a news station.)

But it was the escalating anticipation and suspense that at once had me, not just hooked, but a junkie for life. I devotedly continued to listen to ATF and idolize Casey Kasem until his retirement (from the radio show) in 1988.

Of course, my music compulsion continues just as feverishly these days. I have 3800 tunes on one of my ipods; need I say more? Although today I would fancy myself as somewhat of a music enthusiast or connoisseur especially in the genres of pop, alternative, dance, and musical theater). I admit, however, the term “maniac” is much more apt in its connotation.

And that night in 1968, when “Hey Jude” was finally revealed as the year’s biggest hit song, my affinity was conceived!

On yet another note of life’s irony: three months after Mr. Kasem was replaced by Shadoe Stevens, he and his wife Jean were vacationing in DC and happened into the Georgetown store that I was managing. Yes, I came home that night (beaming like a budding teenager) with his autograph, which today is set in lucite and rests in honor on my desk. Mind you, my  über sense of propriety forced a friend to scout him down, effuse, and explain that it wasn’t for herself

“To Mark, You’ll always be number one! Casey Kasem” Although I was certain that all of his fans charted thus, spiraling in a pool of One Hit Wonders!

(Image: by “People Too”, a duo originally from from Novosibirsk, Russia. peopletoo.livejournal.com)

Yes, Another Humpus Interruptus

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Hump Day. I hadn’t heard reference to that naughty, innuendo-laden term in many a year, until I started my rocky commune with Facebook. Now, each Wednesday, I see myriad status updates making mention thus. Some are meant and met with regret; others with stress, relief, or reluctant exuberance. But, in any case, we are meant to smile. For me, my Wednesday is yawning and primed for slumber. Tonight, I shall falter as I pray to the angels and beg forgiveness from Mrs. Foster and Miss McIver, the Latin teachers who “delivered me from declension.”

Some folks who either work the “odd” week or seek any work at all, feel a sympathetic hump. Others diligently use it as both goal and benchmark.
What of those worker bees who work a ten day stretch? Do they feel a mightier hump?
Similiarly, do those that work a “two day on, one day off” schedule, enjoy a rhythmic pattern of quick & intermittent humps? Does such a “hump” become standard and thus less enjoyable? Does frequency indeed lend contempt?

Do we vacation, break, and retire from the hump altogether? Or simply giggle as we reminisce of the humps of our youth?
What of those individuals who work part-time. Do they experience “Humpus Interruptus”?

The “rhetorical” hump. This euphemism of yore confounds me. I wallow in such endless questions … with the only knowledge that of uncertainty.
I best shun the familiar hump and set my sights on Thursday. Scarlet and the Cure would both nod in agreement. These are simply days. Although we are unable to toast the “mid-week” in unison, we all collectively share in the experience that is “tomorrow”!

Save the “humping” for the wondrous creatures of the planet’s noble Animal Kingdom. They know divisions of neither time nor week, but seem to appreciate well the Hump’s art!

(Image: “Joy Ride” by Naoto Hattori.)

Mealtime Intrinsic: Oysters at Seven

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I was usually way too well-behaved, dutiful, and respectful as a child. My parents often wondered when the cruel door of reality would finally open. I was mannered, tidy, and focused. And a thoroughly nauseating nine year old! Naturally, Hal and Margy thought it was just a matter of time when I’d at last get my voice and cry out in rebellion. Then again, sometimes the road is winding and arduously-navigated.

One night (when I was a fifth grader new to school as my family was new to Greensboro), I came home from school, completed my studies, and read for an hour or two. My mother called me into dinner after my father finally arrived, which was usually past seven. He has never been detailed or prompt as I have always been.

Dinner appeared, at a glance, to be customary: meat, vegetable, and a starch, the preferred trio in the mid-sixties. That night, my mother prepared sautéed spinach, baked potatos with all the trimmings, and deep-fried (“What in the world are those strange looking things, Mom?”) oysters. Margy had taken fresh oysters, rolled them in a corn meal batter with herbs, and fried them.
Normally, such a fried entrée would have brought me immediate joy. I relished and evoured similarly prepared chicken, pork chops, even chicken hearts … but oysters? The idea had never even occurred to me.
The four of us ate dinner as mannerly and reserved was our custom, sharing our day’s unfold with each other. Of course, my father dominated the conversation, as was his style and trademark. My mother nodded knowingly, and with grace. My sister played with her food and giggled; of course, being in kindergarten thus were the expectations of her. And I focused on not eating around the oysters.

By 7:30 everyone had finished, except for me. Even Polly had eaten her oysters in some younger child’s effort to “show up” her big brother. My plate had a small summit of neatly stacked golden oysters in the farthest edge of my plate. My mother took my sister to prepare her for her bath, book, and bed. At that point, my father said those eventful words that are yet etched in my foremind: “You are not leaving this table until you finish your dinner!” Hal then took his briefcase into the den to read the paper, review his day, and at some point fall asleep on the sofa.

For at least ninety minutes, I sat quite still trying not to squirm nor to appear bored and anxious. I contemplated the nuances of the walls and stared out the window into the front yard, hoping someone would walk by to distract me from the drudgery.

My mother came in (I can only assume it was finally her turn to prod me!), gently scolded me, and suggested: “why don’t you just pretend it’s ice cream”

I looked at her in amazement: “that would just be gross!” Imagine oyster ice cream! Clearly, I was not about to budge nor willing to compromise on the matter. She rejoined my father in the den.

At 9:30 (my parents later had to corroborate the time for me), Hal and Margy came in together — unified and bolstered. Naturally they were worried. The situation wasn’t reaching any resolution and the time was already pushing well past my bedtime. “Mark, at least just eat half of them. Then you can get up from the table and get ready for bed.”

I looked at them both, stayed calm, and responded: “this was entirely your decision, not mine!” 

Clearly, I was not going to yield any bargain. Clearly, my parents were caught off guard.

To say thay they were shocked would bely great understatement. They were surprised initially that I didn’t simply eat my dinner as I was always agreeable and amenable to authority. That was, of course, intensified by my defiance and determination. And what finally befuddled them into parental “orbit” was the poised, proper, and pristine reply to their proposal.

“Okay, Mark. Take your dishes into the kitchen and then get ready for bed.” I could hear my parents in some heated discussion in the next room while I prepared my bath and organized my book bag for school.

It was that very night in 1966 that my parents had the startling realization that the balance of familial politics had indeed changed. Any discussion would, at once, be an uphill battle for them. But again that was their decision: they were the ones that gave me the tools, confidence, and outlook to be myself. From that night on, we rarely had a conflict. But, then again, I rarely gave Hal and Margy a reason for one.

(Image: “The Judge” by Naoto Hattori.)

Feeling Blue in the Green Room

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On these less than comfortable last days of Summer, I am a reluctant contestant on some not-as-yet aired game show. Ot at least so it seems. The Universe holds me at bay keeping me a-pace in its Green Room, without so much as an informal contract, letter of intent, or a meager bowl of pretzels. For a routine unencumbered by employment, my days are kept busy with rigorous qualifying rounds: tests, maneuvers, and interviews.

With each new challenge Jon completes, a new one arises with perhaps an even greater pay-off, in that it is another crisis averted. As I am his trusty navigator and appointed “lifeline” (Thank you, Meredith), I am only a pretender. I have no answers, only questions. My reservations outweigh my intuitions. And often my reassuring smile is courtesy of nature’s deft makeup crew; and my comforting words of hope, scripted.

And so I pace in that Green Room, fearing yet the inevitable isolation booth. I have, however, learned to distinguish the various hues and shades. Recently it has been a magnificent and surprisingly modern “seafoam”, the very green that’d make the game show angels smile.

(Image: “Untitled” by Albert Weisgerber, 1907.)

Count Pocci’s Violets and Verse

In 1876, German artist and writer, Franz Pocci, published his “Viola Tricolor”, his collection of verse and fanciful illustrations, anthropomorphic images of pansies. Pocci depicted the “humanesque” flowers in diverse roles and vignettes including: an artist, ballet dancers, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, university faculty, the Argonauts, musicians, a pair of lovers, and a clever scene of “pansies in hell”.

Count Franz Graf von Pocci (1807-1876) was a lawyer and an official in the court of King Ludwig, advancing to Chief Chamberlain. It was his creative efforts for children, however, for which he was best known: founder of the Munich marionette theater, its principal set designer, and author of many, beautifully illustrated children’s books. Most of his works were published in Paris and New York, with fine gilt and cartouches on the covers. As in “Viola Tricolor”, Pocci’s images were usually exquisitely detailed and finely executed chromolithographs.
Recently, a pristine and signed copy of the 1876 book sold at auction for just under five thousand euros.

The painter at his easel (translated from its original German):

Thus many a painter once gay and glad,
Sits before his picture, and says full sad:
“Oh had I but turn’d this work into cash!
But nobody buys since the last great smash!”

I dare say: Count Pocci well understood not only the regal and seemingly delicate beauty of the fair pansy, but could detect its strength of character and steadfast, hearty demeanor simply from the look in its face.

 

(This post was originally published over two years ago. I am trying archive the 1100+ posts that I lost when Posterous closed shop this past March.)

The Swell of a Struggling Grief

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It was barely June two years ago, when my father passed away. We were neither shocked nor prepared since he had been in constant decline for what seemed like quite a while. Dementia was taking its ugly toll alongside the ravage of a stroke and another heart attack. On that balmy day, his suffering ended and his spirit, at last, escaped and soared. I, however, was unprepared to mourn and, in fact, was uncertain whether I could.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love him or care. He had simply been absent for so much of my life that we had essentially un-bonded before I was ten. That was the summer that forced me to grow up, to independently process my life’s stimuli, and to look inward for nurturing. My mother was in the hospital for what turned out to be four months. My sister, a spry four-year old towhead, was staying with my grandmother just outside DC. And I thought it was just going to be my father and I on some adventure. Surely, he would take me more often to Chapel Hill’s Intimate Bookshop to peruse and purchase books. School was out for vacation so I could play with my friends Damian and Mark, exploring attics, streams, and buried fish ponds. And I could likely stay up past my 8pm bedtime.

A few days after we dropped Polly off with Dorothy, Hal took me on a sudden trip to visit his mother near Asheville. However, as we neared the exit, he took a different turn. At the end of a secluded over-grown drive stood Our Lady of the Hills Camp. I had no inkling of what was in store as Hal still didn’t reveal his plans. While he went into the office, I listened to the radio … AM naturally. After a half hour he came back and confessed (and as a recovering Catholic I never take confessions lightly): I was to spend six weeks at ”sleep-away” camp. I quickly locked the doors of his light blue Valiant and started crying. Eventually, “Sister Somebody” coaxed me into unlocking the door, as she immediately plucked and pulled me from my last bastion of familiar surroundings.

The session unfolded at an excruciating pace. I never heard from Hal the entire time although I marked my mental calendar with daily letters home to”remind him not to forget me!” I did make a few friends, but spent my free time either reading or daydreaming. At night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak to the “shower cabin” to bathe in private. To this day, such communal living terrifies me.

On my birthday, a box of treats arrived from DC (from Dorothy, my great aunt Ruth, and my cousin Nancy) with confectionary treats from Garfinkel’s, a camera, and some snapshots of Polly. By the time that the day came for me to pack, I awakened long before dawn and before our also excruciating and humorless daily mass. After breakfast, I was ready to go home, taking my suitcase as a sitting stool while I waited by the parking lot.

After five or six hours, that unsympathetic “Sister Somebody” came and urged me to go back to my cabin. My father wasn’t coming and, in fact, he had registered me for the second session. She assumed that I knew. In fact, she probably had no idea that I had neither talked to or received a letter from him. I unpacked … one garment at a time.

That next session was uneventful. I stopped crying and had become almost jaded about the “camp” process. None of my buddies from the first session remained. I simply read more and daydreamed more.

Finally, the second six weeks ended. I packed again, not convinced that I was going home. That is, until Hal, Margy, and Polly arrived in the afternoon. I ran to my mother and sister, hugging them both and asking them too many questions. I didn’t make eye contact with my father for what grew into several days. When we arrived home, it was unfamiliar and foreign. It was a different house in a different city … and no one warned me. Hal had taken a job in Greensboro and moved the family without so much as a hint. My mother must’ve been privy but she had only been discharged a few days earlier.

A few days later, I rode to St Pius X Catholic School with strangers; entered my fifth grade classroom and, again, faced strangers; and daydreamed more often than ever before. Eventually, the new routine had become almost too familiar. Friends attempted to engage me in recess or after school activities, but I opted to usually read. My childish magical ”world” had been both bricked and mortared that summer. I had become a pensive, serious child; and I stopped confiding in anyone, except sometimes Polly. I refused to get into a car with only my father for several years, becoming instead the witting companion to Margy as she watched her marriage start to deteriorate.

I had become the prototype of a pre-pubescent adult. I bought into the patterns just as my parents allowed learned to depend on them. I nurtured my sister, helped around the house, and always remained competitive in school. Long before my teenage years, I simply quit sharing. To distract myself, I became over-involved in extra-curricular activities and, whenever possible, I’d lock my bedroom door and saturate the airwaves with music.

Years later, I thought I had resolved the situation with my father, telling myself that, although he remained a good person, Hal should never have married or bothered with progeny. Then, when I was twenty-six, he argued with me when I finally ”came out” to him, even though I had already shared that tidbit with everyone else in my milieu. He was certain that I was being impetuous and foolish … and he refused to accept it. Eventually, he acquiesced and became used to the notion, although we would never discuss it until another decade later.

A few years ago, however, while he was still lucid and aware of both the past and the present, he unexpectedly broached the subject. He confessed on that particular summer he had, without intent or effort, been drawn into an affair. With Chapel Hill still being a sleepy college town at that time, he ended it by relocation (which I read as ”running away”). With poorly chosen words, he exacerbated both the situation and the hurt.

So here I sit on this rainy afternoon, pondering the twin concepts of sorrow and regret. I still am unsure how to mourn my father’s death. I do, though, grieve for: what might’ve been, what should have never happened, and the people we all eventually became. Admittedly, I inherited many of my traits and abilities from my father but they were thankfully tempered by the cloak of my mother’s compassion and grace. But it has been long, long time, since the four of us were forced to redefine ”family” and thereby survive.

Granted, there are critics out there that understand neither my feelings nor my position about Hal. I can only hope that they come to allow me to finally grieve in my own way. Yes, I miss him. Yes, I regret the many missteps along the way. Yes, I can still marvel at his many accomplishments in life.

I suspect that the day will finally arrive that I will fully mourn his death … to the relief of others. They, however, didn’t have the same relationship that Hal and I had — nor did they have the same set of memories.

For now, I am still unable to cry.
(Image: “Untitled” by Sergio Mora, 2009.)

 

Dreaming of the Repast: Savoring the Repose

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I’m in that sunset stage of life, that for which food trumps most everything except perhaps sleep. Then again, I want what eludes me most: a decadent meal of choice victuals and an evening of fully therapeutic and undisturbed slumber. On many summer evenings, my imagination wanders to oysters on the half shell, crème brûlée, Lobster Norfolk, a crown roast stuffed with minced garlic, or sautéed sweetbreads. Some are simply too expensive in any quantity or preparation, while others are now deemed unhealthy and less suitable within the context of a prudent diet. A precious few are just not available in the hinterlands, regardless of one’s means, connections, or resourcefulness.

     Each night, long after dinner’s dishes are returned to their cupboard and order is again restored to the kitchen, I start thinking about how delicious eight hours of “shut-eye” might indeed be. How glorious it would be to sleep until I just can’t sleep any longer and to emerge from my bed refreshed and satisfied. Yet, once my head is cradled on that once irresistible mound of down, I toss. I squirm. I flail. And my eyes remain firmly closed to the responsibilities of the morning … for perhaps three, maybe even four hours.
     I haven’t made use of an alarm clock in almost twenty years. Instinctively, I just awaken, both begrudgingly and otherwise, and scurry into the kitchen to prepare that first bolstering iced coffee. I won’t entertain the folly of idle daydreams until darkness again cloaks Marklewood and my appetites are again whet with longing and nostalgia.
     Of course, I appreciate fully the relativity of one’s own survival and health on that practical continuum of conventional wisdom and counted blessings. Complaints never quell a craving, nor is it particularly joyous to rave on the dwell. It is what it yet is. And without so much as a nod to its transition, it is now about a few hours of precious rest … and meals of sandwiches and iced tea.
     Whoever profoundly remarked “the higher the sandwich, the closer it is to heaven” surely smiled at both the divine irony and culinary absurdity of such a statement. Please, refrain from ever casually quipping “poor boy!” I simply play the hand I am dealt.

 

(Image: “Sandwich No.6” by Joey Parlett, 2010.)

 

 

 

Tomato Aspic, Tole Sconces, and Tennessee in Drag

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Recently, my dear friend John would have celebrated his 82nd eightieth, were he still alive. Mind you, he is not to be confused with the Jons or Jonathans that subsequently touched my life. I met John when I was a sophomore in college … and he had already been on several career paths, including a stint in New York. I was a curious and confused nineteen year old. He was a witty, charming, and confident man whose age fell somewhere between that of my parents. Jon quickly became my eager mentor and, although he might not always have had the answers to my questions, he consistently made me comfortable to ask.

     I met Jon at the Arbor House, an eclectic emporium of odd accessories, ancient prints, and exotic plant life. It was a wet and nasty Tuesday afternoon and I had stopped by to find the perfect accent to spark a fresh and new feeling in my bedroom. Of course, I resisted any interpretation of such a “bent” as I perused Italian tole sconces; hand-colored and framed engravings; and the ever-collectable antique inlaid stationery boxes. Surely, I was a bit out of place, in my fatigues, sweat-shirt, and gold wire-rimmed spectacles. Back then, I would often describe myself as a young Bolshevik. John, however, would have noted that I was indeed floundering in some vague dimension between coy innocence and a fully-charged libido.
     Jon approached me, initiated a conversation, and likely stepped back to observe how I handled myself. An hour later, we were already fast friends and sitting outside on the still “moist” steps, trading details of our lives, and admiring the Victorian urns that seemed to perfectly frame us as our flirtation mounted. He was a fourth grade teacher at the very parochial school I had attended a decade earlier. I was repressed by all admitted accounts, terrified that I might be a homosexual, and certainly not yet comfortable with the term “gay”.
     We met for dinner later that week. I was fascinated by his lifestyle and intrigued by his worldliness. He, as he would reveal years later, was engaged by my almost Edwardian manner of speaking and my non-traditional interests. We frequently made each other laugh and were both anxious to continue every conversation that time constraints reluctantly ended.
     I have always been a devoted student and an able learner. Within a year, I had mastered the preparations for: tomato aspic, crème brûléea perfect poached egg, and a broad litany of sauces and gravies, including both a classic Bearnaise and a Hollandaise. I had voraciously read those choice examples of modern gay fiction that are the definitive primers for a young man on the cusp of “coming out”. They were titillating reference books, although it was doubtful that I’d either soon be at sea, gardening in Provence, or reliving an urban adventure of John Rechy!
     John introduced me to gay men and women from many circles. I joined a gay academic union and a bridge club, the latter enhanced by the presence of several divorced “older women”. Without noticing the transition, I was soon socializing with contemporaries of my parents and seeing firsthand my hometown from a “more mature” perspective.
     Our friendship grew, weathered, and survived the many changes in both our lives. After graduation, my part-time job became full-time, and took me to Charlotte. Ultimately, I packed all of my books, sconces, urns, and engravings and moved to Washington, D.C. I was confident, bolstered, and ready for an adventure. Naturally, our relationship was so profound that we maintained frequent contact, although it acquired a balance. John often sought my advice and opinion.
     And then, in the spring of 1996, he unexpectedly passed away: alone and with little fanfare. He was quietly buried a few days later.
     Today, my home is appointed with remembrances from John’s life. I have a reverse painting-on-glass of a watermelon he proudly found at a yard-sale one sweltering August morning. Somewhere in my desk are some yellowed B&W photographs of him and Tennessee Williams in full drag, talking at a party in the mid-50’s. (They are tagged “Carmelita and Beatrice at play, Waverly Place”.) And in my bedroom, above a credenza, is a pair of antique, hand-painted tole sconces that I purchased at Arbor House on that fateful rainy day back in 1975. I sheepishly asked his opinion and he responded with two decades of compassion, advice, and his personal and bawdy take on “Hints from Heloise”!
     I am now at yet another cusp, that of age 57. If I were ever such a faun, I am now a full-fledged satyr, albeit in life’s inevitable denouement. My hooves are weary. And I have long since misplaced my flute, keeping my melodies safely at a respectable hum.
     Tonight, I am humming nostalgic birthday felicitations and rifling through boxes. I am determined to locate those photographs. 

(Image: “Untitled” by Paolo Guido, 2011.)

 

The Perfect Sweater

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Once my mother gave me what she hoped would be the perfect sweater. It indeed might well have been. It was a meticulously crafted alpaca cardigan, a gorgeous cornflower blue with a high shawl collar and antique intaglio buttons. It was beautifully crafted, had many eclectic details, and, to my horror, looked to be the wrong size. My heart sank to somewhere just below my appendix when I realized it would most likely be too small for me to ever wear.

The swell of sadness wasn’t really for my loss but clearly for my mother’s. I knew she had spent weeks searching for the perfect gift. For years, she had always claimed that it was often excruciating to shop for me and that my tastes and aesthetics were simply too specific and eccentric. Whatever my mother had given me that night would have brought me joy. What terrified me was the thought of my mother feeling that she had disappointed me, and her “joy of giving” becoming somewhat tainted.

As I leaned to embrace my mother and turned to show my aunt the vivid woolen creation, I raced through my repertoire of excuses. Somehow I could certainly find a  logical reason why I couldn’t yet try it on and model it. While my mother and aunt remarked on the sublime buttons, I wondered if any feeble stalling ploys would indeed salvage the night’s joy and grace. Fortunately, it was well past seven and we were already late for our dinner reservations. So I suggested that we scurry.

I drove, as I always did back then and still do, if you should consult Jon for verification. Our dinner was lovely. We laughed heartily and reminisced about vintage family dysfunction. The evening had taken such a magical turn: our table had a view of the Potomac River and the moon shadows as they tiptoed toward us from the banks. I had one of those meals that one might just recall for quite a while: lobster Newburg with all of the culinary accoutrements.

By ten, we were halfway to my mother’s house, well-sated and spent with both victuals and conversation. It was late for all of us so, at that point, the intent was to drive them both home and then head back across the river to my house. After all, it was a school night. Luckily, I thought, there wouldn’t be time for me to try on the sweater, so I salvaged the evening, at least from my perspective. My mother had no idea that it would surely be too tight for a strapper such as I!

That was over two decades ago. My mother has long since passed away. I moved back to North Carolina and changed careers, reserving the need to do so again. I still have that sweater, the one that delighted my mother … the one she gave me, not for my birthday, but because when she first saw it, she thought it was the ideal present.

Naturally, my story doesn’t end there. Nor does it end years later when my partner died after a long illness. His disease stole him from me, ravaging my own health, as my weight dropped from my usual 185lbs to close to 150. Most folks thought I was emaciated but I didn’t really notice. One night, though, perhaps a month after his funeral, I was headed out for a distracting dinner with cronies, who had finally coaxed me out of the house. I fixed a very dirty, very necessary martini and started to get dressed and came across that cornflower sweater in the bottom drawer of my dresser. After removing the Garfinkel’s tag, I put it on and buttoned it carefully. I walked over to the primping mirror, silently begging the Universe to allow a proper fit. It looked, “mah-velous,  dahling.”

I looked in the mirror as I brushed my hair and I felt safe. And loved. Both my mother and Michael had passed away, leaving insurmountable voids that seized the joy from most days. But that night, I felt my mother’s reassuring embrace as I cried for my lost partner, as my despair diminished a little. As I reached for my spectacles, I knew at once that I would be okay and that hope hadn’t abandoned me.

It was at that very moment that I realized that, yes, it was indeed the perfect sweater, that cornflower blue cardigan with the intaglio buttons. My mother’s timing was always impeccable.ught was the perfect sweater. It indeed might well have been. It was a a meticulously crafted alpaca cardigan … a gorgeous cornflower blue with a high shawl collar and antique intaglio buttons. It was perfect and, to my horrors, the wrong size. My heart sank to somewhere just below my appendix when I realized it would most likely be too small for me to ever wear.

The swell of sadness wasn’t really for my loss but clearly for my mother’s. I knew she had spent weeks searching for the perfect gift. For years, she had always claimed that it was often excruciating to shop for me and that my tastes and aesthetics were simply too specific and eccentric. Whatever my mother had given me that night would have brought me joy. What terrified me was the thought of my mother feeling that she had disappointed me, and her “joy of giving” becoming somewhat tainted.

As I leaned to embrace my mother and turned to show my aunt the vivid woolen creation, I raced through my repertoire of excuses. Somehow I could certainly find a  logical reason why I couldn’t yet try it on and model it. While my mother and aunt remarked on the sublime buttons, I wondered if any feeble stalling ploys would indeed salvage the night’s joy and grace. Fortunately, it was well past seven and we were already late for our dinner reservations. So I suggested that we scurry.

I drove, as I always did back then and still do, if you should consult Jon for verification. Our dinner was lovely. We laughed heartily and reminisced about vintage family dysfunction. The evening had taken such a magical turn: our table had a view of the Potomac River and the moon shadows as they tiptoed toward us from the banks. And I had one of those meals that one might just remember for quite a while, lobster Newburg with all of the culinary accoutrements.

By ten, we were halfway to my mother’s house, well-sated and spent with both conversation. It was late for all of us so, at that point, the intent was to drive them both home and then head back across the river to my house. After all, it was a school night. Luckily, I thought, there wouldn’t be time for me to try on the sweater, so I salvaged the evening, at least from my perspective. My mother had no idea that it would surely be too tight for a strapper such as I!

That was over two decades ago. My mother has long since passed away. I have moved back to North Carolina and changed careers, and might need to do so again. And I still have that sweater, the one that delighted my mother … the one she gave me, not for my birthday, but because when she first saw it, she thought it was the ideal present.

Naturally, my story doesn’t end there. Nor does it end years later when my partner died after a long illness. His disease stole him from me, ravaging my own health, as my weight dropped from my usual 190 lbs to close to 150. Most folks thought I was emaciated but I didn’t really notice. But one night, perhaps a month after his funeral, I was headed out for a distracting dinner with cronies, who had finally coaxed me out of the house. I fixed a very dirty, very necessary martini and started to get dressed and came across that cornflower sweater in the bottom drawer of my dresser. I put it on, buttoned it carefully, and it actually fit.

I looked in the mirror as I brushed my hair and I felt safe. And loved. I felt my mother’s reassuring embrace as I cried for my lost partner, as my despair diminished a little. As I reached for my spectacles, I knew at once that I would be okay and that hope hadn’t abandoned me.

It was at that very moment that I realized that, yes, it was indeed the perfect sweater … that cornflower blue cardigan with the intaglio buttons. It clearly was the craft of a passionate and meticulous Peruvian woman. She clearly made certain that the final sweater was a by-product of both her soul and passion. I just assumed, at that point, that the many brilliant skeins she used spoke to the maker and the wearer — and the bond that such magic created.

My mother’s timing was always impeccable.

Egads! My Soapbox Has Splinters and Stains

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Best of Augustine Friday evenings to you, my friends.

In this crazy world, may you find some sun-drenched moments of profound beauty, discovery, or human connection that gets you through at least until bedtime. Enjoy the savor.

On a different note, may more of the Universe’s mystery unfold so as to explain a few ever-burning queries:

How is it that there is a national hip recall? (Yes, as in ‘hip replacement’)

How is it that Bristol Palin is handed further celebrity by being invited to compete in the all-star edition of “Dancing With the Stars”?

How is it that there are several dozen reality shows (in production) that explore and exploit some of the worst behavior in television? The telly’s ugly underbelly keeps its clench with such fodder as: bounty hunters, trailer park melodrama, Amish kingpins and their enforcers, kiddie beauty pageants, filthy restaurants, filthy bars, filthy homes, brides “behaving badly”, swamp lords, and extreme hoarders.

How is it that the Republican Party here in the U.S. exalts hyper-conservative politicos like Rand Paul, Michelle Bachman, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and North Carolina’s own Virginia Foxx?

How can an alleged murderer claim “assisted suicide” as his defense when the victim was beaten by four people, struck in the head with a pick axe, strangled, given an overdose of horse tranquilizers, and then finally had his head duct-taped inside a plastic bag?

How is it that social networking sites fail to realize that it will be their corporate arrogance and failure to provide consumer advocacy that will ultimately be their downfall, unravelling their subscribers?

How is it that a new line of UK paper towels (with a tattoo-inspired motif) can actually sell for $9 (USD)?

Finally, how is it that, here in the United States, quite a few civil rights, freedoms, and liberties vary from state to state? I am 57. Jon is 67. And we’d be much better off if we packed our tired selves into the Jeep and moved out of North Carolina.

Those are my “soap-box” issues for this glimmering, yet balmy dusk. There is yet the chance opportunity to find a random bloom in my pine-needle strewn garden, a new friend, or some sublime “work” of beauty that is an inspired and unexpected creation. Those, my friends, are indeed often the best of moments.

Regardless of Henry and Pfluffer’s valiant and relentless efforts, I know that such “moments” do not include stowaway tree frogs that burrow inside house plants … that will soon return to the sunroom.

Be gentle and be kind. If the stars, cell phone minutes, and Facebook “pokes” all align, perhaps tonight the pusses will host one of their famous candlelight soirées at Marklewood. Thank you, Hyacinth.

(Image: “Millennium Burial Mound” by Julie Heffernan, 2012.)

Fairing at Five: My First Straddle

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Even as a wee lad in Chapel Hill, I always hated going to the fair. The thrilling rides, the crowds, the fragrant livestock exhibits, the pungent aroma of unidentifiable vendor delicacies … none of that appealed to my young, yet eclectic aesthetics. My greatest memories of such forays were always the safe return home and my insistence on taking a bath.

My earliest visualization of such an October jaunt is from 1961. Hal and Margy, who was five months pregnant with Polly, naturally were excited. This was to be another rite of parental passage. That might, they dressed me in some cute sweater and cap and then we headed to Raleigh for the State Fair. Being five, I had no idea what was involved with such an adventure. I did, though, sense my parents’ anticipation and excitement … as I stared out my window in the back seat of their navy Pontiac. I was content creating mental paintings from the lights and clouds in the dusky sky.

Once at the fairgrounds, after a forty minute drive, we parked, paid our admission, and proceeded to search for the perfect food: some treats that would be fairly nutritious and, perhaps more importantly, memorable. I can only hope that dinner that night was teeming with nutrients and vitamins, as I cannot recall anything about what we sampled. Subsequent forays to fairs would suggest that we probably had sausages with peppers and onions as those were always a highlight, at least for Hal and Margy.

We probably spent three hours walking the midway, scrutinizing various games, and sampling cotton candy. Occasionally, we’d stroll into some pavilion to admire prize-winning poultry, pork, and pies. At some point, however, I was introduced to cotton candy, which I don’t remember tasting but I do recall as being oddly blue.

Yes, there were photographs. Margy was quite the camera buff back then. We had pages and pages of images celebrating that night. My favorite, of course, was the one with me perched on a “paper moon”, with some precocious facial expression. Even back then, my eyebrows were demonstrative and animated.

I slept for most of the ride home that night, finally waking in my bed upstairs on Ramsom Street. I recall walking into my parents’ bedroom and wanting to take a bath. My father urged me to return to bed but my mother was rather impressed by my attention to and concern for proper hygiene. She eagerly prepared a bubble bath at that late hour.

When I was finally fresh, sparkling, and in my footie pajamas, I crawled into my bed upstairs. My room overlooked the back yard and the woods, with walls of ‘eight foot tall’ windows enhancing both my panorama and fantasy. Each morning I awakened as if I were in some grand treehouse, in some magical distant land.

That next morning, I woke up quite early as usual … clutching a giant stuffed frog. It was cornflower blue with bright yellow polka dots, and a tongue. I carried it downstairs with me that morning — beaming and proud. My father won it for me that night at the N.C. State Agricultural Fair, although any details of the actual game have long evaporated.

I still have that silly frog today; it is perhaps my most cherished souvenir of my odd childhood. It serves as an unlikely reminder to be open-minded to new experiences. Of course, I firmly reject any notion by today’s fairgoers and their misguided taste-buds. It must be some fever that leads someone to create a greasy hamburger served on a halved Krispy Kreme doughnut … or a deep-friend Twinkie.

I rest my case. Perhaps, I’ll find that yellowed photograph  this afternoon. It’ll give Jon a laugh to see a young “me” straddling a crescent moon.

(Image: “The Meat Train” by Mark Ryden, 2000.)

All’s Fair at the Fair (1938): Revisited (1964)

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I was barely eight and it was my first “big” adventure, at least that I can recall. My parents had taken me to New York to marvel at the World’s Fair, just as their respective parents had taken them when they too were eight. Alas, my sister Polly had the misfortunate timing of birth and was not quite three. She spent that duration with my grandmother in DC and certainly remembers nothing of that time.

But I was fortunate. I had Hal and Margy all to myself for the long car trip from Chapel Hill, as they quizzed me in spelling and engaged me in story-telling, sing-alongs, and atypical road games. We arrived somewhere in the city late, late at night. Years later, I’d discover that it was closer to 9:00PM and we were, at that point, in Brooklyn.

We spent the next few nights with my Tante Lisl, who was a fabulously eccentric woman of near eighty. Lisl had a huge and elegant apartment overlooking a park … filled with antiques, memorabilia, and the most curious of curios. The room that I slept in housed her magnificent cuckoo collection, with clocks from all over Europe rather artfully positioned on the walls. Those chirping timepieces enthralled me, as my only prior reference had been those seen in cartoons. Never mind that they surely came in direct conflict with my parent’s objective that I sleep soundly in my bed.

Lisl fascinated me. She wore odd clothes, which years later I’d describe as rather Bohemian. She handily dominated a room which, mind you, is no easy feat whenever my father is in proximity. And she colorfully and vividly recounted many tales of her adventures of touring with Isadora Duncan. Lisl, it seems, had been a dancer, much to the dismay of her family. She was considered several notches past avant garde, even approaching scandalous. Both of my father’s parents had been born into families in the Mannheim/Heidelberg region of Southern Germany, families that were driven by both education and teaching. Tante Lisl, my grandfather’s aunt, had somehow found a different road which first took her to Paris and then all over the world, until she retired in the late 1920’s. She had spent the next thirty-some years, refining her eccentricities and enjoying the camaraderie of New York’s artistic community.

Lisl was simply unlike any adult woman-person I had met up that point in my short life. Although, admittedly, I have met very few since. She was capricious, totally engaging, and never restrained by family, as she never married.  In fact, a few days later, when Hal and Margy were readying me for my first day at the World’s Fair, I actually asked if I could stay back with my aunt. Of course, though, I knew at some level that I had no choice.

We toured the many exhibits, marveled at their grandeur and scale, and enjoyed exploring various cultures. But by mid-afternoon each day, my mind turned to Lisl and what the night might hold in store. One evening, she took the three of us to a Greek restaurant where my father became perhaps a little too curious about and observant of a certain belly dancer. On another, she invited several of her eclectic friends for a smörgåsbord of exotic victuals, reminiscences, and (for Hal and Margy) libations.

Later that week, we left New York to pursue the next leg of our pilgrimage: Toronto by way of Niagara Falls. That amazing, over-the-top, and seemingly endless natural wonder, however, still ranked behind my aunt!

By that point, my imagination and comprehension had both been saturated as our vacation settled into a rather typical sixties’ road trip. In fact, these many years later, I remember little else, except that I achingly missed my little sister and my buddies back home.

You see, I was the only child from my group of friends, and probably St Thomas More Elementary, who had ventured to New York — with all the sites, the few memories, and the precious and judiciously doled souvenirs. It took the passing of several summers before I had the epiphany that all children think their holidays are special. Such a truth is protected by several codicils in the Unabridged Parent’s Handbook.

And, more importantly, I was the only one with a Tante Lisl. Unfortunately, I never saw her again; she passed away just a few years later.

For many years, whenever I mentioned her name to my grandmother, she would roll her eyes and offer in familial disdain and in her still strong German accent: “that Lisl!”

(Image: “In Her Course” by Thomas Barbey.)

Felix the Cad: A Rob Roy with an Orange Twist

 

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Back in a previous life and when my forties were yet uncharted, one certain and well-intended weekend went awry. Of course, many others took a similar route but none with the emotional gamut, karmic adventure, or compounded misbehavior. I dare say that those three nights in March of ’98 left my body and psyche both exhausted and floating in a cold pool of idle gossip.

That weekend marked an annual fundraiser and string of galas and events, intended to promote a cause as well as meet lofty financial goals. Michael and I were both integral members of the steering committee, having donated a year’s worth of spare time. As it all was coming to fruition, I had no idea that there’d ever be as many twists as there indeed were.

On Friday night, there was a black tie party for event sponsors, hosted of course by the organization’s board of directors. Naturally, it was a lovely, catered affair with perhaps three hundred attendees, all dressed beyond the “nines” and clearly extremely parched. Let’s just say the bar was busy for the duration and that I was enjoying my customary RobRoys. Nothing too eventful happened except that I received a plaque as the “outstanding volunteer”. I had secured about thirty sponsors (of over $500 each) and raised many donations of goods and services for a silent auction. Oh yes, and then there was Felix, that persistent chap who was relentless in his flirt, seemingly always approaching me, no matter how briskly I mingled or how often Michael pulled him aside.

By midnight, many of us dropped by Babylon, a club downtown that was holding a public fundraiser. The music was loud; the dance-floor was spilling from overcrowding; and everyone was clearly extremely parched. I had my jacket in one arm as I continued the obligatory mingling and fended advances from the flirt who had followed us there and was still determined.

The next morning, I awakened at six to head over to the venue where the main event was to be held that night. As I was brewing coffee, I heard a knock on the door that secured the basement. It was that incorrigible chap who wouldn’t accept my “NO”. Apparently, Felix had stopped by the house on his way home and, since my house was on a corner and had six likely doors, he made a regrettable decision. Since we hadn’t heard his ring (our doorbell was broken), he went around back, knocked, and (finding the door open) stepped inside our basement. Yes, he had slept in our damp and dark laundry room, nestled on a pile of soiled clothing. Surely, he would never, ever tell anyone.

That night, as we were breaking down from the silent auction and dance, a friend came over to me and asked: “what’s this I hear about Felix sleeping with a pair of your jeans in your laundry room last night?” Apparently, he had felt the transgression was some rite delicious notoriety and had single-handedly cranked the rumor mill that had spared me, but not my cronies. Furious and embarrassed, I hurriedly filled the back of my Trooper with boxes, dishes, and a mannequin used to display a silent auction item. I rushed home to get a modicum of rest before the Sunday events.

At ten on Sunday, Michael and I had a house full of yawning volunteers at a pre-party, as we served: shrimp grits, sausage & artichoke strata, and gazpacho spiked with a peppered Absolut. That morning, folks were only slightly parched, with the only real “buzz” being that of Felix and his misspent slumber. I was already dreading the remaining events as my reserved image was in jeopardy of not surviving the day.

The next event, a late brunch and early tea dance at another sponsoring club, was slow to start. Folks were perhaps too tired to dance away the afternoon, although they always seem to muster the voice to mention that damned Felix! When we were breaking down buffet tables at dusk, all I wanted to do was to hide from the world in a cloak of shame and self pity. But, alas, there was still one more event: a country & western drag show scheduled for nine.     I arrived at the Palms just before the emcee took the microphone. I scurried to the bar to get a RobRoy before the program and surveyed the room. Between the grand hairdos that were approaching new heights and the familiar faces that all seemed to be painted with taunts and snickers, I simply wanted to be left alone, perhaps even ignored. As I lit a cigarette, a rather scruffy, but extremely fetching man started a conversation. As I had no idea who he was, I assumed the anonymity was reciprocal and thus safe from aspersion. Relieved that he indeed knew nothing about me, we talked for a spell and, when Mary K. Mart finished her interpretation of Cher’s “Believe”, I walked home.

It was a beautiful night to be walking home as I whistled “Believe” … haunted by both the shadows dancing in the moonlight and my reflection of the long and regrettable, “lost and found” weekend. As I neared the stoop of my house, I heard the gate open behind me. As I turned, I saw that it was the stranger from the drag show. He rushed up to me, drew a knife, and demanded my car keys. After a ten minute altercation, he was driving down the street in my Trooper and I was on the phone with the police.

An hour later, two policemen were still in my living room when a call came in on their radio. “We found the car. It was abandoned, engine still running, and the door open on the driver’s side. But we need back-up. There seems to be a body.”

When was this nightmarish weekend finally going to end? The policemen drove me to where the car was (across the street from the Palms) as I felt justified to assume the worst case scenario. My car would be impounded as it was now evidence in a murder investigation, a sad state that of course was trumped by the even sadder tragedy of death.

As we walked over and I peered into the car, it all made sense and my fears were quickly assuaged. It was not a body per se: it was the mannequin from the previous night’s silent auction. A crowd of onlookers had gathered but I didn’t even look for any familiars among them. I just drove home as soon as the police finished their report.

The next morning was one long session of stringed phone conversations. People were calling to find out what happened and to report the totals for the weekend’s events. Between the five events, we had raised over $350,000, a source of great pride for the fledgling charity. I drank a lot of coffee that day at work and probably smoked too many cigarettes … as I recounted the unfortunate episode of the car. By noon, I was weary of the entire experience except that I did realize the small bone that the Universe had tossed me: not one person mentioned Felix that entire day.

That night, I went to bed quite early, tossing and turning for quite a while before I finally closed my eyes. There was indeed a great deal to process and I had yet to determine which lessons I had learned. But at least I had the sense to put my plaque safely in a drawer.

 

(Image: “Kinseidai” by Otake Shigeo, 2005.)