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Viva La Revolution

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Viva La Revolution

It was a glorious, spring day. Puffy, white clouds caressed an eye-popping, blue sky. Cool but not cold. I was on the quad of my university playing guitar and singing “The Great Mandala” by Peter Yarrow. “So I told him, that he’d better, shut his mouth and do his job like a man. And he answered, ‘Listen, Father. I will never kill another.’ He thinks he’s better than his brother that died.” Vietnam. It was a war that killed and mutilated and left many a young man’s future tossed off onto the shoulder of the highway of life, forlorn and forgotten. All for a cause that didn’t exist .

“If we don’t stop communism in Southeast Asia, we’ll be fighting them in San Diego.” I was from Colorado. I didn’t care if the Vietnamese invaded San Diego. But it never occurred to the hawks that the agrarian communism of Russia and China didn’t appeal to Americans the way it appealed to undeveloped countries trying to throw of the yoke of colonialism. In Vietnam’s case, us.

Every night you saw film of injured or killed American soldiers being carted off the battlefield, Viet Cong executed, villages set on fire and the women and children running in terror, Buddhist monks self-immolating in protest. The nightly news. I don’t know if I can convey how important it was. If you wanted to know what was going on, you read the paper and watched the nightly news. There were 3 of them: NBC, CBS, and ABC. And they were insulated from their parent companies so that the news wouldn’t be beholden to advertisers. So when you watched the news, you got…news!

Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS nightly news. He was the man who cried when Kennedy was killed. He was the man who told America after the Tet offensive in 1968 that, despite what our leaders told us, the war in Vietnam could not be won no matter how many young men we threw at it. Because we weren’t fighting a country, we were fighting an idea: freedom.

The draft had made the war a part of every family’s nightmare. It brought families to the verge of civil war. I remember that year, 1970, my family celebrated Easter at a brunch. And my sisters yelled at me for being against the war. I have to explain yelling in the context of my family. It was more like stage whispering. “How dare you not support your country?! How can you sit there and judge the actions of the elders?!” To which I would respond, “It doesn’t make sense. The only way it makes sense is from the perspective of those profiting from it.” That didn’t stop the stage whispers.

Vietnam was the main reason the children of the people got together. Protests, marches, sit-ins, lie-ins, love-ins, draft card burnings. The anti-war movement was the burning flame in the heart of American youth. Women, blacks and gays pinned their movements to it, because here was a large group of young American men who would listen and even help with their causes.

April, 1970. The United States invaded Cambodia. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 because he promised to “get America out of Vietnam, with honor.” Those last two words translated from Nixonese to, “never.” Students across the country left our classrooms behind and took control of the grassy open spaces on the campuses, and created “peace villages” made of tents and sleeping bags and lean-tos, protests, laughter, speeches, heated discussions, music, love and life. The teachers joined us and the administrations panicked. Had they waited us out just a little longer, boredom would have set in. “Whatcha doing tonight?” “Protesting I guess, you?” “Yeah.” We were young.

But they panicked. They called the governors and the governors called the national guard. So it was at my school, so it was at Kent State where the national guard murdered 4, unarmed students and wounded 9 others.

So there I was, singing and playing when the national guard formed a phalanx, three soldiers deep, along one side of the quadrangle. Our fearless leaders with the bullhorns ran to the other side of the quadrangle to put as many students between the soldiers and them as they could.  A beautiful woman crossed in front of me, carrying a bunch of daisies towards the guardsmen. I followed her. She placed a daisy in the muzzle of each M-1 rifle the soldiers carried at port arms. Some softened but many yanked the flower out of their weapons, crushed it in their hands, dropped it, and spat on it to show their utter male contempt for the fact that she made them doubt, even for a moment, that they were doing the right thing. The young man in front of me let the flower stay in his rifle. I knew I knew him and I could see from his face that he knew me.

“Regis High School?” I asked. “You were two years ahead of me,” was his reply. Will was his name. I knew him because everyone in the school knew him. He was brilliant. Everyone thought that he would win a Nobel prize or become a supreme court justice or the first black president. Faced with the draft, he joined the national guard in hopes of staying out of Vietnam. So there he was with all his promise, dressed in drab, olive green carrying a rifle with a daisy sprouting out of it.

We talked about high school. Memories of crazy, wonderful, mean, brilliant Jesuits made us laugh.

His sergeant growled in Will’s ear. “You taking up gardening, son? You miss your mama that bad?” The sergeant turned his dead eyes on me and I back up a step. Will expression removed the flower from his rifle and turned the weapon upside down so that any residue of peace could tumble out.

Way in the back of the crowd, the leaders of our protest exhorted us over bullhorns to “Kill the pigs”, “Fuck Nixon”, and “Give peace a chance.” I guess they hadn’t been able to decide if they were going radical or hippie. I wondered, Why were the leaders in back, I wondered. Shouldn’t they be in front inspiring us with their compassion or fierceness, depending on which bullhorn you were listening to? I thought about Wellington and Napoleon, surrounded by their adjutants on their opposing hillocks, watching their armies slaughter each other. Did Agamemnon lead the fruitless charges against the walls of Troy or was he back in his ship thinking thoughts of empire with a slave tending to his lap?

Will nudged me with his rifle.  “I think you better get out of here,” he said. “…said the joker to the thief,” I replied. I forgot about history. Now I was lost in the Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan’s song.

His rifle nudged me a little harder. I could smell his nervous sweat and gun oil and the daisy.

“I mean it, man.”

I looked at him. Without turning his head he slid his eyes sideways. I followed them. Behind the phalanx an officer, red-faced with anger, yelled, “Fix bayonets!” I looked at Will who unsheathed his bayonet and attached it to his rifle. He gave me a sheepish shrug and I ran. I ran across the boulevard to fraternity row. The frat-boys were for the war because their fathers had made sure their sons wouldn’t be drafted.

Before my eyes, the peace village that had was full of life and love was destroyed in a matter of minutes by young men carrying rifles with blades attached. In their wake were only cries of terror, agony and rage.

My lasting memories are of the clowns on the bullhorns, a governor who decided the national guard was the right way to stop a peace demonstration, a beautiful woman who smelled like spring, and a boy, a school mate and potential friend, separated from me by a gun with a blade attached. For a brief moment, the war and protest had been forgotten as he and I shared memories of a less dramatic childhood.

I read later that Will and all his potential died in Vietnam.

The revolution ended a few years after that. Not because xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and fear of anything sexual or non-Christian were defeated.  No, they went into hiding in the Republican party along with the war-profiteers waiting for a more opportune time. The revolution ended the day they ended the draft. No longer unified by the larger cause, black rights, women’s rights, and gay rights had to stutter step on their own through the decades.

The leaders with the bull horns became bankers or hedge fund managers. We all sold our souls for a piece of the American pie. But some of us tried to pass on to our children the knowledge that we all, every living thing, live and breath on this little blue marble in the middle of space. And, no matter what we believe or what god we pray to, we had better learn to get alongPerhaps some of you are those children.

Manners

Monday, February 8th, 2016

My fourth year was momentous. During that year, my nanny, the person I loved above all else, was dismissed because I loved her above all else. My sisters, both older, started to spend less and less time at home. And, until my birthday, I had a blankie. It was soft, warm and smelled of love and I carried it everywhere.

On my birthday, my father marched me down to the basement, wrenched the blanket from my hands, stuffed it into the incinerator we had next to the furnace, and made me watch through the soot-stained viewing portal as my blanket melted and burned. He said, “It is time to put aside childish things.” My reaction was the four-year-old’s equivalent of, “What?!” In retrospect, I think my father was introducing me to hate because nothing ends childhood quicker than hatred. And I hated that man for a long while.

When I returned upstairs, a Chinese man was waiting for me to measure me for my first suit. Now that I was four, I could eat with the family. That meant I had to dress for dinner. My dress clothes were made to order in Hong Kong. And in six weeks, I had a suit.

I should mention here that I was born deathly allergic to silk and synthetic fabrics, a fact my parents discovered when they laid my 2 month old self on my grandmother’s silk cushion. I turned beat red and struggled to breath and evidently died on the way to the hospital but the paramedics resuscitated me.

The doctor refused to believe that silk was the cause until my mother, lovingly I assume, wrapped me in her silk-lined fur and I stopped breathing again. He called in the rest of the hospital staff and they wrapped me in silk yet again for their astonishment and entertainment. I wonder if my allergy and I were entertainment fodder for my parents’ guests until someone wondered aloud if it was a problem for me. The rashes I suffered from synthetic fabrics were legendary. I looked like great horned toad until I could scrub myself clean.

My clothes were cotton and wool and linen.

As soon as my suit arrived, I went to the table in my crisp, little cotton shirt and my merino wool suit and my oxford shoes and my wool tie.

We sat at the table with our hands folded and our thumbs perched on the edge of the table until my mother took the first bite.

My mother was a very smart person. She had a masters in math from Stanford but had married in the 1930s and learned to dumb her conversations down to an acceptable level for society. In retaliation, she talked. I never saw her breathe. I assume that smoking had so diminished her lung capacity that she could only manage mini-breaths. The result was uninterrupted chatter. Sometimes it was quite funny, sometimes illuminating, sometimes simply incomprehensible.

We were served. I remember sitting there watching her cut her first bite, switch the fork to her right hand, lift it halfway to her mouth and continue to talk. I looked to my father who politely listened while she talked. I looked to my sisters who politely listened to her talking. I would look at my serving becoming a gelatinous blob while she talked.

Even when she finally took that first bite, I had to quash the instinct to wolf the food. It didn’t matter how fast I ate, I had to sit there until she was done and she was in no hurry. She had a lot to say. Topics of conversation were limited. My mother was a world-class bridge player. She traveled to play in tournaments. Sometimes that came up. My father was a lawyer and a scratch-handicap golfer. Occasionally that would arise. They would talk about parties they were planning or going to—they entertained a fair amount. Or they would discuss travel plans. The traveled quite a bit. Never politics—ever. Except during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It’s amazing how impending immolation from a Russian thermonuclear device swept plans of travel and parties right out the door. We all knew we were going to die. Anyone who had seen pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki knew that “duck-and-cover” was wishful thinking at best.

I was raised Catholic. On occasion the activities of my god-father were raised as an example of how not to be a Catholic. He was a notorious businessman who shredded competition and employees alike. As he was dying, he bequeathed his vast wealth to the Catholic Church, abandoning his family in the wasteland called, “Having to Work for a Living.” I wonder how well that played at the Pearly Gates?

My father’s father and, after his untimely death, my father’s step-father were both U.S. Senators, which says a lot about my grandmother. I didn’t spend much time with my grandparents. My grandmother was a true believer that children should be seen and not heard. Although in her case, she wasn’t fond of the seeing part either.

We didn’t go out to dinner often but when we did, people knew who we were. They would come to the table to ingratiate themselves with us so that, presumably, we would pass on a good word to my grandfather. Unfortunately, men were expected to stand and remain standing while visitors were present.  My father and I stood quite a bit smiling and nodding at people while they talked. Their speech was punctuated by, “I don’t mean to interrupt your dinner, but…”  I didn’t know it at the time but I was being trained in Neural Linguistic Programming one of the tenets of which is that anything said before the word “but” should be ignored

They talked, I smiled. I would look at my food, which was turning into a gelatinous blob while they talked and told us again how they didn’t want to interrupt our dinner. When they left, I would jam two bites of food before the next visitors would arrive. It made me understand why dogs snarl and snap at people who interrupt their meals.

One of my mother’s friends from the bridge world was a big game hunter. Every once in a while we would receive a large box filled with dry ice and hippo breast, crocodile tail, zebra haunch or leg of lion. Our cook—a marvelous cook but horrible human being—turned everything into chicken. Weird, gamey chicken that might be from another planet, but chicken. We ate bear and snake and Rocky Mountain oysters. The latter were palatable if you ignored what they really were. Whenever we had an exotic meal, my mother would bring out insects dried in a ginger-laced sugar. If you didn’t look at the legs and heads and eyes, they were really good.

My parents taught me to set a formal place setting so that I would never be embarrassed at a formal dinner. Worthwhile training because I attended a number of them. Also because, in my pre and early teens, I was extra kitchen help for parties. To this day, I can set one with my eyes closed.

I know the feel of a fish knife versus a meat knife and their corresponding forks; the consommé spoon versus a hearty soup spoon and their matching bowls. Our consommé bowls had handles on the sides so that the broth could be sipped. That was one of those “depending-on-which-side-of-the-Mississippi-you-were-born-on” things.

The shapes and positions of the glasses: Water, white wine, champagne flute—we never served Californian in those days, red wine, coffee or tea and its spoon, and an aperitif glass before dinner and a digestif glass after. It was a good time to be a drunk. There was a never ending supply of a never ending variety of ways to lose one’s soul to the demon alcohol.

My mother and nanny taught me that people serving me were doing me a favor whether they were serving me food, taking my money, or helping me do some pedestrian task, I was in their debt. Expressions of gratitude were not only polite but they were a requisite part of being a man. They also taught me that I could learn something from every person I encountered. I have since expanded that to animals and plants because I’ve learned so much from them, but that’s another story. My father taught me that women came first…as long as they didn’t require recognition for their intelligence or individuality.

For my 12th birthday and every subsequent birthday I was given a tux. They were resplendent things of delicate Chinese embroidery in black and Maxfield Parrish blue silk. Now, you say, how could I wear a silk tuxedo? Carefully. After I put it on, straightened my tie and cummerbund, I had to wash my hands and be very careful about touching the silk or allowing my neck or chin to rub against the tie. If so, I had a little less than a minute to wash the affected area before the rash would set in. Taking a shit in that tux was not easy. It always ended up with a rash developing in an area I’d rather not talk about.

My manners were exquisite. I stood when someone approached or left the table, held chairs, I held doors, raced around the car to open doors, carried a silver lighter I was given for my 12th birthday to light women’s cigarettes even though I never smoked, offered my jacket when it was chilly. Never interrupted someone when they were speaking. Controlled my boy-like movements so that I wouldn’t be a distraction. And went out of my way to make a woman comfortable at the expense of my own. That year, I started Cotillion. Cotillion was a playground for manners. It honed all we were taught at home or taught those whose parents hadn’t bothered.

It was formal dinners, ballroom dancing and, occasionally, a band playing music we liked so we could dance the way we wanted. My table training became a plus when no one else knew which fork to use. “Ask Schuyler. He knows.” Cotillion in my mind was a way to turn introverted children into severely introverted children. Dancing was mandatory. My best friend was famous for being to dragged out from under the table when it was time to fox trot. Although I was shy, one of our instructors was a friend of my sisters’ whose mere presence sent me into pre-adolescent swooning. I would have done anything for that woman. If she had said, “Kill your father,” I would have said yes. Of course, I was still a little sore about the blanket.

When I was sixteen, I got to know a girl well enough that she invited me over to have dinner with her family. Naturally I arrived in a suit. It never occurred to me not to. The door opened. The mother was wearing a house coat, the father orange coveralls. He may or may not have just escaped from prison. I don’t know. Her parents stared at me like I might have just come out of a flying saucer and there might be a large, metal robot standing behind me whose name might be Gort.

I brought a bouquet of flowers as a hostess gift, which the mother assumed was for my girlfriend but I explained it was for the hostess. They stared at me.

Dinner was served immediately. I seated my girlfriend and waiting patiently behind her mother’s chair waiting to seat her. They stared at me again. The mother laughed heartily and told me I would starve if I waited for her. She insisted I take my seat and I spent the rest of the evening resisting the urge to jump up every time she left or returned to the table.

The television was swung around so the father could watch while eating. That was such a blow to my sense of decorum that I almost loosened my tie.

The mother returned with a platter of gray meat. I can’t say what it was. In fairness to me, it wasn’t around long enough for me to identify it. Before the platter touched the table, the father and the brother grabbed the meat with their hands leaving a tell-tale trail of juice and grease on the table cloth from platter to plate and ate it with an alarming quickness.

The mother scolded them for their lack of manners, took the platter and returned with more meat. She served my girlfriend, me and herself. I waited for her to take the first bite. She cut the meat and lifted the fork to her mouth but the husband signaled by shaking his empty that he needed a beer. She popped up before putting the food in her mouth. This sort of thing happened quite a bit. My girlfriend insisted I eat so I did. I still couldn’t identify the meat. It wasn’t that it was bad. It wasn’t. It just lacked…it was missing…flavor.

The mother was so busy serving her husband and son that she never got around to eating. So she lit up a cigarette. I had never seen anyone smoke at the dinner table before.

She talked. That made me feel at home. She talked with a smile and a delightful laugh about life, asking questions of her husband who grunted what I could only assume were affirmations. She was full of hope and the American Dream.

I didn’t realize that dinner in this house was a race. The first one done won the right to demand that the mother bring out the ice cream. She returned with a tub of ice cream, I don’t know, ten, fifteen gallons?, along with some bowls and spoons. The father and son scooped ice cream letting drips of it join the grease and juice on the table cloth on the way to their bowls.  The son finished his first, raised his hands in victory and left the table.

After the meal, my offer of help in the clean-up refused, I drove home composing the thank you note. And I laughed. I had just eaten a meal that had none of the overlay or under wiring of etiquette and the universe didn’t implode! It was so liberating.

Times have changed. Manners have changed. But the lessons are still with me. A willingness to take time to be nice to someone, to listen, to wait until they have had their share are the parts of my upbringing that remain. It makes me wonder if the world would be a better place if we all sat at the table with our thumbs perched on the edge and waited for the mother to begin.

 

Being Old

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE OLD

 

You want to know what it’s like to be old? … Okay.

It’s like your eighteen-year-old self is in the driver’s seat of a car that has seen better days. Much better days.

It works. There are parts you have to grab hold of and shake to keep them on task but it works.

You step on the gas and … well … it moves but not with the pickup you remember. Not with the urgency you want. It shudders and moans some … but it works.

The windshield is filthy and the wipers are ineffective.  However, the rear view mirror works beautifully. The sound system is phenomenal. So good, you have trouble hearing the outside world. The problem is it tunes into all channels at once. Except in times of crisis, they all play something different.

In the car with you are your father and mother and teachers and perhaps, as in my case, all the women of your life.

You’re coming up to an intersection. You’re a little lost and not certain what you should do.  Everyone in the car has an opinion. All the radio channels have an opinion. It’s like a full on fire hose of educated and uneducated opinions in the face.

“TURN RIGHT! TURN RIGHT!”

“I’ve turned theRE before. Not a good idea.”

“NO! IT’S A LEFT!”

“STAY STRAIGHT.”

You go through the intersection. Not because of the advice, not because you’re confused. But life has taught you that there will always be another intersection.

At the end of the day, you pull into your garage. Everyone piles out of the car and jabs you with pointed, guilt stakes: What you did today, what you didn’t do. What you should or shouldn’t have done, yesterday or the day before or when you were four years old.

You go inside. Sleep, a dear friend wraps his arms around you … at the most inappropriate times: Visiting with friends, talking to your wife, eating dinner, in the middle of a movie. When you lying in bed in the dark, Sleep has run off with someone else.

So, you want to know what being old is like? It’s as if you’re in an old, leaking canoe in the middle of a raging river and you’ve just lost your paddle.

It’s a trip!

 

I Had a Ghost

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

I had a ghost. Not someone following me. I might like that. Not a ghost writer. I’m a writer who is basically unread so I think of myself as a ghost writer.

A long time ago my former wife and I were on the path to become former. She was off …modeling, I think she called it, in one city or another. I was remodeling our house. Perhaps in the back of my head I was thinking about sprucing it up for sale, but maybe it was just to clear out some of the dust of a marriage that had grown old and crumbly.

I concentrated on the basement which a predecessor in the fifties had redone with horrendous tile and wallpaper covered plywood walls. I worked methodically through the basement. We had a large, walk-in cedar closet. The cedar boards were thick and still very aromatic. Carefully, I pulled off each cedar board so that I could reattach it after I sealed the concrete behind it. I got to the last section. I realized that the parts of the boards that overlapped the concrete foundation wall weren’t attached but the rest of them were glued on to the last section. I tried to figure out how I could remove them without losing them.

Exasperated, I leaned on the section and it moved inward with an audible, metallic click. I stepped back and the perfectly disguised section of wall swung effortlessly open to reveal a secret room. There was a light switch by the disguised door. Miraculously, it worked. It turned on a naked, single-bulb, ceiling fixture that had an outlet in it. Plugged into the outlet was a Bakelite plug and cloth-wrapped wire cord that hung straight down. The naked, copper wires at the end of the cord were coiled around a heavy, home-made metal cot. The harsh light revealed an otherwise empty, twenty foot long narrow room. When I say narrow I mean not as wide as my outstretched arms. Two sides were concrete basement walls. The door formed the third and the back of a plaster-and-lath wall in the large room of the basement was the fourth.

Trembling, I tip-toed into the room as if fearing to wake someone.

I was too late.

It took about two months to finish the basement. I cleansed it of anything that than hinted at torture and spent some research time in the library. The Bakelite plug and cloth-wrapped wire suggested that the setup had been done before the introduction of modern plastics. Other than discovering that my house was built in 1929, the house and the neighborhood had a quiet history, I found no evidence of a sadistic maniac loose in the Denver area.

The basement was done. The marriage was all but done. I was asleep. April 19th, at a bit past one in the morning, I woke because I was unable to stretch my feet out.

I assumed it was my dog, Fozzie, and was about to make her move when a scream coming from that spot at the foot of my bed chilled me as though I were walking through the frozen section of a grocery store wearing nothing.

I switched on the light, saw that Fozzie was standing frozen at my left side looking at the depression at my feet. The scream intensified. After what seemed an interminable length of time, it and the weight on the bed dissipated. Fozzie, who never passed up a chance to investigate anything with her nose, snuggled close to me instead.

I walked through the house. It was closed-uptight and there was no evidence of anyone but the dog and I inside. I found the door to the cedar closet open, closed it. A cedar closet works on the principle of concentrating the cedar odors from the heartwood oils that thwart an invasion of moths. Leaving the door open was a like having a neon sign advertising an all-you-can-eat wool dinner. Although I considered it, I didn’t lend much weight to the notion that what had just occurred was related to the torture room, because months had transpired since I finished remodeling without anything happening. I continued my patrol, Fozzie glued to my side. Finding nothing, I chalked it up to a bad dream but, for some reason, sleep couldn’t find me again and I spent the night with a book.

The next night, at a little past midnight, I was just settling in. A long, hard day with little sleep behind it made me forget about what I had convinced myself had to have been a dream. Just as sleep was calling me to her, someone sat on the bed beside my right hip.

I assumed that my wife had returned home unannounced and sat next to me in a misguided attempt to right the wrongs of a marriage gone bad.

I turned on the light. Fozzie was on my left. Hair raised and a strangled growl emanating from her. The scream. I hit nothing as I slapped at the air over the depression in my bed. I covered my ears and rolled away from it. Like the night before, the scream and the presence, disappeared.

After another sleepless night. I called in sick to work. I went down into the part of the basement that was the torture room and told the air, “I’m not your tormentor. I just live here. You are free. You don’t need to relive whatever happened to you.” I was a smart and creative guy and was pretty sure that would do the trick.

April 21st. I sat up in my bed reading. I was not going to let my half-asleep subconscious deal with whatever was going on. One a.m. Fozzie stood up, her hair raised as if she were in a Tesla Chamber. A growl struggled to get out of her body. The room chilled. I watched the bed depress as if someone sat on the edge next to my right arm. The scream pierced me. Eyes clamped shut and hands desperately trying to block the heart-rending sound, I rolled to my left.

As before, it stopped. I yelled, “Either kill me or let me sleep. I am not the person who hurt you.”

Although my every inclination was to check into a motel or move and worry about my possessions later, I remained in the house. I moved the television into the bedroom figuring that late night television would discourage the most insistent ghost. That night and for nights to come, there was no visitation. I congratulated myself that the ghost had understood and taken pity on me.

But strange things started happening. Friends, who normally loved to spend some time at my house, quickly suggested going out or made an excuse for leaving. I had a party. One of the guests brought a Ouija board.  After much kidding and joking about raising the dead, I watch from a distance filled with trepidation. As soon as her fingers touched the planchette, a look of electrical shock took over face. She started to moan. We all thought she was kidding but her body tried to continue to moan after she had run out of breath. I grabbed the Board and planchette from her and threw it outside explaining that I had a ghost and raising the dead wasn’t the best idea for the party. The party devolved into a ghost hunt before it devolved back into a party. It was a hell of an ice breaker.

One morning, I was hustling to get ready for work. I had to iron a shirt and the laundry room was in the basement. To get there, I passed through the kitchen and I noticed a broken shade, which I had been meaning to fix, lying on the breakfast nook table. I ironed the shirt. On my way back through the kitchen, I saw the shade hanging in the window. I raced through the house hoping to catch whoever was playing this prank on me. The house was still locked from the night before.

My hand shook as I reached to touch the shade. It was real and it was fixed. From then on, anything that needed repair ended up on the breakfast nook table. The ghost decided his or her time was better spent elsewhere.

In December of that year, a friend of mine moved into my basement. He knew about the ghost but we didn’t talk about it since nothing ghostly had happened in quite a while. About two months later, I was wakened by what I thought was an explosion followed by what he would describe as an angry yell, what I thought was a scream of panic, in the basement. I went into the basement calling out my friend’s name and assuring him that it was me. He told me everything was fine but when I entered his room, I saw a nine millimeter gun in his hand and a small hole in the ceiling over his bed. Thank god for the way houses were built back then. The bullet lodged in the stout subflooring of the living room.

He said that he woke when he felt someone get on his bed. Standing over him was an apparition wrapped in what he thought was aluminum foil. Naturally, he shot at it. I mean naturally if you’re a gun owner.

Other than putting a hole in the ceiling and making me worry just a little bit about his stability, I understood. I told him the ghost was harmless and he went back to sleep as if I had given him a knock-out potion.

April 19th and for the following two nights, the screaming returned. For whatever reason the ghost didn’t wake my friend again who was sleeping mere steps from the torture room but decided to scream at me instead. I wondered if sleeping with a gun was such a bad idea.

About a month later, I started dating. I had known this woman for a while and this was not her first time in my house. She was a model as well, so it didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary when she took an intense interest in her image in the mirror of the dining room. What I did notice was Fozzie, remember my dog, standing in the corner of the room, hair raised, and gurgling a growl. The room chilled perceptibly as if a gigantic air conditioner had turned on.

I looked back at Barbara. Eyes locked with herself in the mirror, she mumbled a mantra, “It’s not me!” She took her long nails to her face. The first sight of blood sprung me to her side. I grabbed her hands to keep her from doing permanent damage. I thought about calling 911 but had no idea how to do it and still control her hands. I wished there was some way to just say, “Siri! Call 9-1-1!” But that wasn’t available then.

After a brief struggle, she stopped. I tended to her superficial wounds. She had no recollection of what had just happened, and accused me of scratching her until I she saw the specks of blood on the underside of her nails. For some reason, she stopped seeing me. Women!

A year passed with the same pattern. Two other people had interactions with the ghost that I didn’t witness. April 19th through the 21st the screaming recurred. It would wake me, I’d wait it out, then almost as soon as it stopped I’d fall back to sleep.

I was hired to write a libretto for a new opera and the producers moved me to New York for a short time to be close to them. The composer lived in Paris. Through the mail and telegraphs, we communicated through some of the most interesting French-English mishmash exchanges one could imagine. I wished there was some way to correspond instantly and maybe have a computerized translation as well.

One of the producers introduced me to a famous psychic who wanted to hire a ghostwriter for his memoir. Ironic? He was the soothsayer to the stars.

He invited me to his house which was opposite the old Saint Patrick’s just south of Houston on Mulberry. Seated in the solarium, we started the interview to see if I was a psychic fit for him—something I thought he should have been able to divine without my presence but what do I know of psychics. The doorbell rang and he excused himself. I was sitting there, probably picking my nose or something when in walked Princess Diana and a body guard. As she removed her scarf and sunglasses, she said, “Oh, hello!” To which I responded, being smart and very creative, “Hi…Di!” Her body guard whisked her out of the room afraid that I might say something even more insipid.

I sat there for a while. I could hear voices in another room, one of them feminine and British. It gave me time to think of all the things I could have said. Just as I was ready to find the Princess and say something more indicative of a person with a brain, Patrick walked in, excused himself and set another date for us to interview. As he was walking me to the door he said, “You have a ghost.” I, being smart and creative said, “Uh huh.”

“Dig up your backyard and you’ll release it.” He punctuated that with the close of the door behind me.

In the succeeding year, I relandscaped the yard. Not because of what the psychic had said but because I was bored.

I didn’t find any bones or bloody clothing or tools, but the house changed. No more screaming. No more things getting fixed by invisible hands. No more friends tearing their faces off or firing guns at the intangible. I wish I could say that I had one last visit where the ghost patted me on the head for helping him or her shuffle off this mortal coil, but no. Much like my marriage, it simply dissolved.  The haunting was so confined and regulated that it never became central to me. Just another odd link in the chain of events of a human life.

Nannies

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

 

By the time I was born, my parents were tired of being parents. I can’t say for sure if it was because my sisters were too demanding or that my parents were never intended to be parents but, doing their very best to be good to me, they hired a nanny slash cook. To be sure, her cooking abilities were paramount to her child care abilities but they did want the best for me.

Mrs. Aiken. Just her name, six decades later, can bring a tear to my eye. My very first memory is of her racing, in my three-year-old eyes, her grandmotherly body out the front of the house to snatch me away from pimply-faced boys who thought that driving up on my parents’ lawn to run over my dog was a good idea. I was a teenager at one time and no one can explain what passes for a good idea in the mind of a male teenager, but this one stayed just plain cruel no matter from what perspective or age I examined it.

I can’t quite picture Nicky, the dog, being hit, but I can, to this day, remember my nanny sweeping me into her arms and screaming at the boys who left behind a trail of exhaust,, laughter, and a dying dog.

Mrs. Aiken was my everything. I don’t mean to say that my mother wasn’t present. She was. Just in the background. And my father a step or two further back than she.

Mrs. Aiken would take me on outings. On the bus. An exciting thing to a young boy living in the country club zone. Or we would sit at the kitchen table and shell peas, or scrub the dirt off mushrooms with a dry cloth she had for just that purpose. Every afternoon, she prepared a hot tea and serve it sweetened with honey and cut with milk, in a cloisonné tea set with demitasse cups perfect for my small hands.

One night in my fourth year, I discovered the magic of matches. Much like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the magic quickly got out of my control and the rug I was sitting on caught fire. I can’t say how she knew but she was in the room stomping it out before I could shake the magician’s wonder from my tiny brain and before my mistake could become something more than an ostrich egg size scar on the otherwise perfect rug. She scolded me about matches and fire. Took me to the stove, turned on the closest burner and held my hand in hers close to the flame so that I could feel the heat without it hurting me. She explained in terms my little pre-human awareness could understand that fire was an element we barely controlled and we should never give it open space or free rein. She hugged me and told me that she loved me.

The next morning, she was gone. I felt it in a way I can’t express. It wasn’t a Sunday so she didn’t have her day off. Besides, she had promised me a picnic with her family on the Sunday still three days away.

I looked in her room. Her pictures, her bric-a-brac, her clothes were gone. Only her scent remained. Over and over, eyes squeezed shut, I inhaled deeply and willed her to be there smiling at me when I opened them. She never was. I went to my mother who was preparing to go the club for bridge. She sat me down and explained that, “Mrs. Aiken left because she couldn’t be around a boy as bad as I was any more.” Even if I had been able to do anything but cry, the discussion was closed as she was hurrying out of the house.

I raced around the big house in repetitive circles that took me up and down staircases and in and out of every room. I asked our wonderful maid, Effie, what I had done. She could only answer me with a hug and shake of her head. So I raced around my head instead. Mrs. Aiken’s reaction to the fire, the reaction I had witnessed, didn’t seem commensurate with what my mother just said. So, I looked deeper.

I was a boy and fascinated with the equipment boys are born with. In retrospect, I don’t think I was anymore obsessed with my penis than any other boy. Even by the age of four, I knew enough not to touch it in public but Mrs. Aiken had witnessed my interest in the bath tub. Being raised in a Catholic household, instilled with guilt from the womb, I knew, deep down, that touching my penis was a mortal sin—I was going to hell for sure and concluded that my penis was the reason Mrs. Aiken could not abide me. This was well before the “every sperm is sacred” became part of our Catholic School boys’ curriculum. That came along about age eleven when the nuns were sure we were masturbating…they were right, of course.

Deviancy starts young. For whatever reason it, like the angel of death in Passover, flew right by me with not much more than a nudge. It’s kind of like the priest in my school—I discovered much later he was an infamous pedophile—who passed me over in favor of other boys. But becoming convinced that you are deviant, that you are evil inherent also starts young. My mother’s straightforward statement that I was to blame for Mrs. Aiken no longer cooking for the family pulled me into an introverted, soul-searching that still marks my life today.

I’m sure there was an interlude between nannies. I don’t remember it. I remember waking one morning to find my world was gone then waking to find that hell was in its place.

Her name was Maria. Where Mrs. Aiken was full-bodied, Maria was wire thin. Where Mrs. Aiken was happy, Maria was…well, not. Where Mrs. Aiken was tender and loving, Maria seemed to be put off by her duties and particularly by me. The mere hint of me in the house was enough to bring a sneer to her face that haunts me still.

She was a vegetarian. She might have been a vegan but that term was not around then. She was also a very good cook. When my parents had company, I was more often than not relegated to the kitchen table with my nanny. After she served succulent meats and vegetables to the dining room and put a plate of the same before me, Maria would parboil vegetables, put them in a blender with some of the water they had boiled in and create a purée that she would consume with some relish. At least I assumed that slightly diminished grimace on her face meant that she was happy. She would look away from my dinner with disgust and I couldn’t make eye contact with her dinner for fear that she might make me have some. Conversation was beyond the scope of her employment contract. So, we sat in silence, avoiding each other’s eyes and food. Whenever eggplants were in season, I’m old enough that we only ate fruits and vegetables that were locally grown, her concoction was a sickly purple. Eggplant replaced Brussel sprouts as my least favorite vegetable until I experienced Thai food some time later.

My mother loved horror films. I was raised on horror films. The outings with my mother consisted of church and horror films. It didn’t occur to me until just now how appropriate that was.

My mother was a stylish woman. Her clothes, makeup, and hair spoke of money and a discerning eye. In church, we sat in the front, her coiffed hair covered with a perpetually black lace, mantilla. A mink stole draped over her shoulders. I loved to snuggle against the mink.

She dressed down for horror films. Still stylish but she wasn’t trying to impress God. I remember going to, with some anticipation, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” when I was six. We shared popcorn. The simplicity of the film’s plot slid right by any defenses I had against nonsensical things. I sat straight, eyes glued to the screen, my mother’s arm clutched tight to make sure that she couldn’t be replaced by an alien.

Soon after Mrs. Aiken left, I had my first nightmare. Maria didn’t feel like an option so I scurried down the hall to my parents room, checking behind me to make sure that a mist of vampiric smoke wasn’t wafting down the hallway to overtake me. I quietly opened the door into their large, dark bedroom and tiptoed to my mother’s side of the bed. My father’s side was farther away but had he been closest, the idea of seeking solace from him was right down there with Maria.

I whispered, “Mom,” and touched her arm. My father was out of the bed, scooping me up, and carrying me back to my bed before a second, “Mom,” could escape my lips. His goodnight advice was, “Grow up.” I didn’t cry often as a child but tears poured out of me as he shut my door behind me, condemning me to torture at the hands of the creatures of the night.

Two years later, the night of seeing “Body Snatchers,” my dreams were populated with people who looked like friends and family but weren’t and cared little for my wellbeing.

The mantra of “Grow up” didn’t stop the blank-eyed, hive-minded, hideously familiar citizens of my room. My dark bedroom quickly became more intimidating than Maria. I knocked on her door and whispered her name with a distinct note of trepidation. She came out of her room a bundle of rage and barely contained ferocity. Her mean eyes narrowed by interrupted sleep. Her hair a curly, salt and pepper volcano. She was so much scarier than my bed and the alien pod I was sure nested beneath it, that I hustled back with only the scratchy voiced, “Don’t ever come to my door again,” as my company.

I begged my parents to let her go. My sisters who visited, as time passed, from boarding school, college, or marriage told my parents that Maria was mean and spiteful. My parents, for whatever reason, kept her for ten years.

When I was fourteen, my parents bought a new television for their room. They moved the previous one into my old bedroom which now served as a place for my sports trophies. Seeing this, Maria asked for a television in her room. The next day, she was gone. I guess good help wasn’t that rare a commodity in my parents’ eyes. Or the idea that a trusted employee would dare to ask for something not already provided by my parents’ foresight was just too much. Had I understood, at age four-and-a-half, that the snake in the garden of Eden was not the devil or even the penis and the lust it embodied—my personal interpretation—but that wonderfully insidious evil called envy, I would have slithered around her ankles hissing all the shortcomings in my parents’ appreciation for her work.

Her leaving was as much a joy to me as Mrs. Aiken’s was a trauma.

At my mother’s deathbed, thirty-six years later, my sisters and I reminisced and I brought up the story of Mrs. Aiken leaving and the reason why. My oldest sister stopped me with, “Oh, no. Mother fired her because she heard you tell Mrs. Aiken you loved her.”

I understand the pressures of child rearing can be overwhelming. Especially when the parents have been through it before and after a long hiatus, have another little present that keeps on taking. I was called “oops” for the first three years of my life.

I understand that having help corralling the exuberance of a young boy would be most appealing. But if you relinquish almost all of the boy’s childhood over to another, don’t be surprised when the boy misunderstands who the mother is and who isn’t. And if you do, don’t take it out on anyone but yourself.

That little boy, curly dark hair and angel eyes, had an irrepressible desire for life. The idea of betrayal had not even occurred to him. My mother’s explanation of Mrs. Aiken’s departure, the time with Maria and the way Maria left, clouded over those eyes with a sense of cynicism and self-loathing that have inhabited his…my life to this day.

School for Wayward Girls

Monday, July 13th, 2015

I’m old. I’m from a different lifetime than the rest of you. Well, back then, back when I was itching to turn sixteen, you couldn’t buy liquor on Sundays, stores and most restaurants were closed on Sundays. Just about anything you wanted to do, if you were itching to turn sixteen, wasn’t allowed on Sunday. It was, after all, the Lord’s day. That left television, which was three channels…four if you counted PBS, five if you counted the independent channel that ran cartoons and reruns from six in the morning until eight at night…and something good Catholic boys itching to be anything but good Catholic boys called, interpersonal recreation.

Boys were encouraged by friends and often family members to become a man sometimes with much back patting and crude humor and sometimes with wry, sometimes wistful, sometimes sad smiles from the females in the family while they said “boys will be boys.” But the risk for girls was extreme. Unwed motherhood had a stigma attached to it akin to being a gong farmer in olden times. Gong farmers would dredge out privies and outhouses. They were paid, not well, but they were paid to do so but the real payment was the occasional wallet, gem, or coin they would find. “Mmmm, tastes like shit but I think it’s gold.” Because of the stench that came with their job, people would cross the street rather than pass near them.

Unwed motherhood had pretty much the same stench. It was, after all, the girls fault because, after all, boys will be boys. Girls and their bastards cast out on the street, or hurried, shotgun weddings, or factitious elopements to men who tragically were shipped out to war before friends and family could meet them were not uncommon practices and excuses rather than the family face the scorn of society. The girls’ education, most friendships, and often any sort of loving relationship with the family stopped when they started to show no matter how young they were.

Birth control pills were in their infancy. Few doctors would prescribe them and certainly no one under the age of 21 could get them. Morning after pills and plan b hadn’t been invented yet. And Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in the United States, wasn’t even a sparkle in the eye of feminists.

The options for a girl who found herself, as my mother put it,  in the family way, were few. Daughters of the well-to-do were flown off for “a year abroad.” That could mean anything: boarding school—literally an academic year in a European school—or, what it usually meant, that she was pregnant and the family wanted her out of sight until she wasn’t pregnant. The girl would come back, high society smile pasted on her face and a prescription for a new drug called Valium to befuddle the memories of either an abortion or a baby snatched from her arms before the oxytocin could settle in to cement the bond between mother and child. The fact that some society girls spent several “years abroad” never seemed to bother anyone. The fact that she had another child with her ski instructor in Gstad seemed to never make it into the family history.

Poor girls had fewer choices…two, come to think of it: 1 – have the baby and become homeless or the sin-eater for the family, or  2 – find a back-street abortionist and this is where, in a modern pharmaceutical commercial, the announcer reels off all the side effects ending with … septicemia, chronic nausea, gastro-intestinal infection, hyper-sexuality, hypo-sexuality, sterility and—wait for it—death.

Middle class girls had another option: Schools for Wayward Girls.

I went to a Jesuit high school. The Jesuits were famous for being teachers of the highest quality and for their tough, no-nonsense approach to boys. I found both to be true. Their approach to the sexual nature of the teenage beasts they took under their tutelage was at once worldly and crude. They didn’t preach at us. They assumed that we would do all the things we weren’t supposed to do. But they had a couple of tricks up their sleeves.

One was showing us startlingly frank, lurid films about sexual diseases. The photos of destroyed genitalia, skin and body deformation, insanity, and—wait for it—death, are, to this day, burned in my mind’s eye.

I can remember one Jesuit. Not a good looking man. He was a golden gloves heavy weight champ and looking at him you assumed he blocked all of his opponents’ punches with his face.  He spoke… perhaps emoted is a better word… to us after an amazingly disturbing film on pregnancy. His main thrust, if that’s the right word, was that all of the disease and problems with child bearing and birth came from seven seconds of pleasure.

Seven seconds! I tried to time it. Really, I did. I set up my clock.  Oh, god, oh, yes…and the next time I looked at the clock, it was an hour and a half later.

One of their other ploys was sending us to the Good Shepherd Home for Wayward Girls for a dance twice a year. These were during our pre-driving freshman and sophomore years—unless you were Danny Falk who had flunked so many times, he was a shaving, drinking, sexually active, driving twenty-year-old sophomore who was not allowed anywhere near this dance. But he was a hell of a bass player.

I remember my first dance. It was snowy and cold. We were transported from our school to Good Shepherd on a bus. The Jesuit chaperone was a shockingly good looking man. Think George Clooney at his best. He was funny, erudite, and incredibly worldly. He had women in every port. One of the jokes in school was that he was late to class because he couldn’t decide which of his girlfriends should get him off. There were three cardinal rules of the priesthood: Obedience, Poverty, and Chastity.  He came kind of close on Poverty. At least he was interested in adult women. Had he been a pedophile… I might have said yes.

The bus ride was typical adolescent maleness minus the rowdiness. Rowdiness was not something any Jesuit tolerated for long. Many variations on, “they can’t get any more pregnant,” were tossed about the bus.

We were lined up at the front door and stood in the cold. The doors opened to the sight of twenty ripe to over ripe girls lined up on their staircase. It was a throwback to catholic grade school dance. You were paired off by the teacher and that’s who you spent the dance with.

A friend of mine counted the girls on the staircase and the boys in front of him. He double-checked his count. “Peter, switch with me.”

“Your sister in the line or something? What difference does it make?” I was not yet old enough to appreciate the beauty and nuances of pregnancy.

“Just switch with me.”

I looked up. A few girls were sizing us up as well. Most seemed decidedly uncomfortable with the whole idea.  I switched with him. The one my friend, Joel, had settled on was one of the girls counting heads. I understood why he was interested in her. She was pretty and her pregnancy was barely showing. She, after Joel and I changed places, switched with the one behind her. I took that as a compliment. Joel took it as a challenge and we played that game until we were at the conjoining point. After a last minute dive in front of me, Joel got the one he wanted. The only way I can describe the girl I was paired with is, she looked like she had swallowed a fair-sized city and was anticipating with some relish a long post-prandial nap.

I had never seen a woman that pregnant. With adult perspective looking back, she was probably just a pregnant woman in her last month of gestation, but at the age of fourteen, she was… whoa. She, let’s call her Mary, looked at me like I might be the creature from her worst nightmare.  We walked awkwardly into the gym which had been decorated for a fall dance. The lighting was low, the music was a taped selection of what nuns thought children our age liked. It missed by about ten years.

We found a table, I seated her and asked if she would like something to drink, suspecting that city eating is thirsty work.

She nodded and asked for a couple of cupcakes. Other boys took my lead and we met at the food table. More crude jokes were whispered including several aimed specifically at my “date” who was the pregnantest of the group.

I returned with the goodies. Like a cat, she toyed with the cupcakes before devouring them with such delight, I could picture her eating a suburban neighborhood and topping it off with a succulent 9-hole golf course.

She asked for more cupcakes. I got them and placed them before her. A nun, who had been hanging out with our George Clooney in black, crossed the room with the uncanny speed that only a nun bent on punishment can exhibit—think of those horror films where people glide across the room with uncanny speed and you’ll get the image—grabbed the cupcakes from Mary and said, “You’ve had enough.” She took the cupcakes back to George and smiled as they receded into a dark corner to discuss the finer points of immaculate conception.

I had promised myself I wouldn’t bring up her pregnancy, the father of the baby, or anything that remotely touched on the whole, you’ll excuse the expression, elephant-in-the-room. I asked her if she wanted to dance. She laughed bitterly and looked at me like I was clearly a special-ed case.  I talked about all sorts of things. Football, Jesuits, my parents, nuns, the band I was in with the dumb but incredibly talented Danny Falk and, since nothing had roused more than mono-syllabic responses, I asked her how she got pregnant.

Let me be clear, I had watched the films and listened to my adolescent friends who had “experience” so I knew how she got pregnant but it just jumped out of my mouth. I mean I was planning on bringing up the weather and pregnant came out instead of snow.

The look on her face. I thought maybe her babies had decided to kick at once. I immediately back-tracked, apologized and prayed for an early death. Mary simply smiled and looked at the dance floor where Joel and the barely showing girl were getting close enough that another nun swooshed out of the darkness, two spear-like hands before her and separated them.

The dance lasted ten, twelve hours although my watch reported only two of them. We marched out as we had marched in, her hand resting on my crooked arm. As we reached the staircase, she grabbed my forearm with such force I thought she was giving birth that instant. A plaintive cry of, “I don’t know nothing about birthin’ babies,” built up inside of me.

In a barely audible voice, Mary said, “You’ve been nice.” She let go and went up the staircase.

In all the years that have followed, I never forgot her. I never knew her real name or what happened to her or the baby… babies. But I pray that her life has been a good one.

Has a spider monkey ever had its way with your ear?

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Has a spider monkey ever had its way with your ear? I don’t recommend it.

There was a time when I was a young, vibrant revolutionary. I thought of myself that way. In the sixties, 80% of the people my age supported the Viet Nam War…as long as they didn’t have to fight in it. They saw their future wrapped securely in the American flag. But I was a believer in Jefferson’s dream: “the Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” I wasn’t a tyrant and I wasn’t  sure if I was enough of a patriot to shed blood, but I envisioned myself like Jefferson, writing meaningful and trenchant tracts while fucking my brains out.

All around me was change. The streets seethed with protests and marches mostly peaceful, sometimes not. Civil rights, women’s rights, and nascent gay rights movements were trying to shake the country awake. Clearly, we stopped shaking way too early. Permeating all of it was Vietnam. Universal draft made the war something that was on everyone’s mind whether they red, white and blue approved or not. The hallowed halls of academe reverberated with debates, arguments, fist-fights, rage, and whimpering. And that was just the sociology department.

Twenty percent of nation’s youth were willing to throw their souls into the jaws of civil and not so civil disobedience for ideals. We clung to our student deferments like life preservers in a roiling ocean knowing that we were lucky to be in school and not on the front lines.  Yes, we were cowards and yes, we hid behind those who truly were on the front line. But, in our own lily-livered, yellow-bellied, pusillanimous, chicken-hearted ways, we fought the good fight.

And into this vortex I stepped, bright-eyed, holding the cause dear to my heart.  I was a mix of conservative and socialist. I listened to every side and tried to find a common, Confucian middle-path through the insanity. My heart was equally divided between the left and the right.

I was betrothed, if that’s the right word. Not engaged, certainly not married, but unmistakably attached to my high school sweetheart by a mixture of love, loyalty, and the comfort of the familiar. No longer a Catholic, something of a Taoist without realizing it, I was unwilling to tell my devout mother that the church and I no longer saw eye to eye on any level.  All the religious school torture I had gone through was for naught except that it created in me a true loathing for anything that even had a whiff of cult. I was educated but no more Catholic than it served me and it only served me in my mother’s presence. I wasn’t afraid of my mother, I was afraid of damaging the relationship we had. You see, I had a catholic size guilt built around relationships.

I was nineteen and there were no end of women around the campus. Every form of them. Women whose voices made me melt though the rest of them didn’t. Women whose bodies made me harden even as their voices or opinions ate away, bite by excruciating bite, at my lizard-brain interest. Occasionally, there was a woman who had body, mind, and soul. And I knew, had I not been betrothed, that she was the one … Until the next one. You see, young men want to fuck every thing that moves … and some things that don’t. Men don’t want to know women’s names or get to know their friends, unless the friends are other women. They just want sex. If they, perish the thought, become friends with the women, it just muddies the water and could lead, perish the thought, to love. Then it’s a whole other story.

One of those next ones brings me back to the spider monkey. She and I, the woman not the monkey, had been in a couple of classes together and were working on a project for one of those classes. She rented a house near the campus and I went over with at least a modicum of hope that she and I could collaborate on something more intimate. You see, I had not strayed but, as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

She was a raven-haired, deep-voiced vixen who generally wore clothes that, in today’s standards weren’t revealing, but in that era revealed just enough to tweak my good, Catholic boy’s holy, little heart with a lustful wrench. I stepped into her house which gave the feeling that Woodstock and the commune were just out the back door.

A wonderland of macramé and tie-dye hung from every conceivable spot framing her like a hippie portrait. She wore something that I immediately assumed was God’s answer to my forbidden prayer—had I believed in God. A translucent muumuu. The words  muumuu and sexy sound like they should never be used in the same sentence. But…oh, my…

The dress’ patterns made her body appear and disappear, making me contort in all sorts of uncomfortable and obvious ways to manipulate her, myself, and the sun into the perfect angle.

We cracked a couple of beers and sat down in her living room. Jimi Hendrix played in the background and she smiled. I took the smile as encouragement but deep down I suspected that she was laughing at the effect she was having on me. I was, after all, listing heavily to my right side to try and get everything lined up. I was on the verge of broaching the subject of the 800 pound gorilla in the room when in bounded Mogo, her pet spider monkey.

I have to preface this by telling you that young children and animals like me. It’s not anything I do on purpose. They just do. And Mogo was no exception. He was on me like police on a hoodie-wearing black kid. Mogo’s proud, human mother, clapped and cooed her approval of Mogo and I getting to know each other. I didn’t mind. Mogo was friendly and cute and stared at me with those knowing, kindred eyes that speak more profoundly of evolution than anything ever written. He took one of my fingers, smelled it, made a face and a sound that made the woman clap and coo more enthusiastically. He touched my face, groomed my hair for a while—yes, I had hair then— before plopping down on my lap giving the impression he had found a new home.

The look on the woman’s face was one of finding the gold at the end of a rainbow. I had passed a  major test. She moved close. Her smell, her voice, that fact that she was much smarter than I, overwhelmed me. I leaned toward her. She toward me. The electricity we generated battled incense for dominance of the air.

I don’t know much about monkeys but I know Mogo was jealous. Of whom, I was not certain. He jumped up between us, grabbed my head with four prehensile paws, wrapped his tail around my throat and screamed while he tried to mate with my right ear. The woman screamed and flapped her hands uselessly and I would have been truly peeved had I not been doing the same thing.  Kind of proves the point that I wasn’t patriot enough to bleed for a cause.

The screaming and flapping spurred Mogo’s desire. Something wet touched my ear. I managed to get a hand between my virgin ear and Mogo’s growing interest. I tried to pry him off. Something about that movement broke the woman’s shock. Scolding and prying loose Mogo’s incredibly strong fingers–taking a little of my flesh with them–she was a flurry of activity. Between the two of us, we were able to dislodge monkey from sexual conquest. Mogo angrily scampered up a floor lamp, screeched and masturbated. Isn’t it amazing how much men are like monkeys?

I checked my ear for damage and she apologized profusely as she dabbed blood off my forehead and neck, both victims of  Mogo’s grasp. I could not wait to get out of there. The ironic thing was that her ministrations put me, her, and the sun in perfect alignment. I made my excuses and left wishing her and Mogo my best.

She and I ran into each other on campus once in a while and she made straightforward advances but Mogo had taught me that being true to my betrothed was the righteous path … Until the next one. To this day, I wonder if Mogo ever found the right ear for him.

 

You don’t look a day over fifty.

Friday, September 14th, 2012

You have a sit down with a big time agent from William Morris/Endeavor or WME.  You give your pitch.  The agent is rapt, transported.  After all, you’ve honed your pitched down to fifteen seconds so he doesn’t have time to look mildly irritated that anyone who isn’t someone is in his office which is the inevitable look you get if you overstay your welcome.

Inside, you’re chuckling.  You can see the awards ceremonies, the acceptance into Wolfgang Puck catered affairs, the fabulous offers jamming your inbox.  The agent leans his thirty-two years back into his chair.  He smiles excitedly and asks pertinent questions–a good sign. You answer them in funny, pithy soundbites.  Your performance is perfect.  You know it, he knows it.

He escorts you out of his office with promises of “getting this to the right people.”  You leave the outer office and remember you left your phone on his desk.  The agent’s voice and his aide’s answering laugh stop you before you push open the door to his inner office.

“All you had to do is look at the gray in his hair to know that he couldn’t have anything worthwhile.”  Says the agent. “When he calls, give him the usual.”  It gives you pause.  Great pause.  You know what the usual is and it isn’t a good thing in agent-writer speak.

“Is your phone really that important?”  you wonder.  While the internal debate rages, you can hear the agent end the conversation with the aide and you retreat to the door to the outer office.  It’s about then you remember that it’s an expensive phone and you’re broke.  You turn back as if you’re just coming in as the aide leaves the agent’s office.  The aide is holding your phone.

He extends his hand offering you the phone.  You take it, smile warmly.  “Where would I be in this town without a phone?”  you ask with a smile in your voice.

“We’ll get back to you,” smiles the aide.

On the drive home, you pound your steering wheel as if it’s the agent’s face.  “Maybe the NRA is right,” you think.  “Maybe we should all be packing.  After all, what’s one less agent in this town.”   It sounds like an idea for a new screenplay!

I’m not dead but I play a dead man on stage

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Pot! The Musical has finished it’s run in Venice Beach.  The utter joy of working so hard and so closely with a fabulous group of people and the frustration of being in a musical that is getting little notice are both gone.  What’s left is a sense of, “Well, that happened.”

When you’ve just finished a death scene, a cognitive dissonance arises when you bounce up to join in the exuberant closing number, “Why can’t we just get along”.  The writer considered having the character appear with angelic wings but instead chose to ignore the afterlife presence on stage.

The actor, the term loosely applies here, is left trying to feel undead moments after feeling dead and no amount of watching True Blood seems to help.

Ah, what the heck

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

The Land of No is now the Land of Maybe not because any dramatic shift in the world but simply because it’s a new year and strange and wonderful things happen in a new year.  Of course, horrible and mundane things also happen but that’s better suited to a different post.

You sit down with an agent who warmly warns you against letting, “the indifference of the industry get you down.”  This veteran of decades in the business then tells you what’s wrong with Hollywood in the form of a parable.

“There’s a restaurant you go to religiously for a while because they serve the best beef stroganoff.  Time passes, other things and other places occupy your time and you realize that it’s been twenty years since you last dined there.  As you drive by, the memory of the stroganoff bids to you and, even lashed to your busy schedule, you yield to the celestial siren call.

“You walk in.  Golden memories flood you.  You settle in the plush banquette, the walls, the waiters and the menu all fit nicely into the niche your brain fondly holds for the place.  Beef stroganoff still rests proudly in a place of honor on the menu.  Its lavish price underscores the passage of time and the change in the way restaurants of this ilk do business.  You wonder if you can afford it but banish all thoughts to the end of the month statement gnashing of teeth.  Salivating decorously, you order it.  You burnish your silverware in anticipation of the creamy delight that is about to transport your senses to Nirvana.

“The dish is presented to you with just the right mixture of elan and formality.  You cast your eyes at the plate and it’s as if you have been transported back to the first time you ordered it.

“You slip your fork into the thing of beauty and, slightly tremulous with longing, you pause before you let the first morsel settle in your mouth.  The moment comes.

“Everything is the same except it tastes like something you would scrape off your shoe.  Your eyes pop open!  Perhaps, the whole thing is a dream and you’re sitting in some twenty-four hour breakfast place instead but you are in the palace of your epicurean dreams.

“You take another bite thinking that your tongue simply was unprepared for the first sample.  No, your tongue got it right.  You demand to see the chef.  You look around at the diners who sit eating complacently.  You crane your neck to see if they are eating the stroganoff.  They are!

“After some todo, the chef comes to your table.  You point at the stroganoff, give your history of eating and ask what went wrong.  The chef smiles sheepishly and says, ‘when the old chef died, he left behind a picture of each dish but no recipes.  We knew what the dish looked like but we had no idea what went into it.’

“And that,” the agent says, “is what’s wrong with Hollywood.”

You wrap up your meeting with the agent and, after he encourages you to “stay in touch”, you leave feeling pretty upbeat about life and writing and even the sixteen dollars you recently spent to see a film.

Filled with a feeling of camaraderie and a sense of finally belonging, you call him the following week, then several times during the month.  He doesn’t return your calls.