A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870’s and 80’s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.  Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators  was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”

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Sexy Shorts

It has been suggested to me that my oeuvre does not contain enough sex. I thought oeuvre was French for egg. I became concerned because I didn’t know how to fold that into an erotic situation. I suddenly became worried that everybody knew something about sex that had just completely got below my radar. Then I learned that oeuvre is French for work and it started to make a little more sense.

Prurient thoughts are not foreign to me. Or anyone else for that matter. Be that as it may, I wish the suggestion for sexier content had not come from my 77 year old mother. It’s a little awkward. Everyones parents are sexual creatures but who wants to dwell on that? Still, a person always wants to please their mom.

~~~~~o~~~~~

My maternal grandparents were married for more than fifty years. They met on the telephone. My grandfather was a telephone switchboard operator at City Hall in Philadelphia. This was way back when there were switchboards and operators. My grandmother was calling City Hall on some forgotten mission. This was way back when you could call City Hall. She liked the sound of his voice. They met, had premarital sex and married shortly before the birth of my uncle Gibby.

My grandmother once announced, half complaining, half teasing and entirely without discretion, that my grandfather couldn’t really do “it” anymore. She could be tactless. After his third or fourth heart attack I guess he just couldn’t manage the necessary blood pressure but he was an even tempered man, if you discount the life long gambling binges. His response was “I’ve been fucking for more than 50 years. You’ll see. When you get to be my age, it’s not that big a deal.”

~~~~~o~~~~~

Thirty years after the birth of my uncle, my father caught site of my mother wearing white short shorts, no bra and a tight t-shirt. They were married, after an unusually affectionate courtship, not long before my sister was born. Not long at all.

I can remember waking to the sounds of them talking and laughing. My room was down the hall from theirs. I couldn’t make out the conversation, muffled as it was by doors and blankets on both ends but laughter is laughter. It had all the sounds of happiness and intimacy. Needless to say the divorce, though many years later, came as a surprise but their laughter is still at my core. They lost it for a time but I will always carry it. I have long considered it my most important memory.

~~~~~o~~~~~

My wife is a beautiful, mixed-race black woman. As the kids like to say, “Dad, you’re the only white person in our family.” We kissed at a Halloween party when she was twelve. I had just turned fourteen. It didn’t go anywhere. Where was it going to go at that age? We met again when she was nineteen. It was immediate and overpowering but we were young. We struggled with commitment until marriage and have never turned back since that day. She has a lovely caboose that has grown a bit over the last few years. As love would have it my tastes have changed along with her contours.

We are in our middle years and one day is very much like the next.

It’s the end of the day. The boys are warm and quiet in their beds. A load of laundry is tumbling in the tropical heat of the dryer. Plates and cups are being soaked in the scalding waters of the dishwasher. I shower and get under the covers to read and warm the bed for her, propped up a little by soft pillows. She bathes long. A displaced marine mammal from somewhere near the equator, she is in repose, submerged in the placid, steaming lagoon of our bathtub; grateful for a reprieve from the thin air. She comes to bed, her skin still warm and damp. She lays on her side, her head resting on my chest, one leg entwined with mine. We sleep together and we depart for sleep together. The lights are out and our breathing falls into harmony. I rest my hand on her hip. We exchange a few words of love talk and my hand slips down and around to her lower back. I stroke her soft backside. It’s very quiet. Then the whisper, “I want to snuggle.” It’s not our code. It’s not a secret invitation. It’s our little guy. We didn’t hear his soft approach. He’s ready for love.

What the Dickens is going on here?

Hey Drew,

Is it me or has this gotten to be a really long century already? Barely a dozen years into it and I’m exhausted. Dispirited even. As a more modern Dickens might have said: “The season of light, this ain’t.”

The wars, the environmental catastrophes, the wild stallions of unbridled greed. The self righteous barf coming out of every self serving jackass for whatever the moronic cause of the moment happens to be. TV talking heads pushing divisiveness like it’s ice cream. The reactionaries. The holier than thou hypocrites. The willful ignorance. The lambs and their slaughter. The liars and their willing minions. China and Russia. Again! The Mideast which, by the way, I’ve been sick of at least since Raiders of the Lost Arc.

And then there’s genocide. I mean, you would think we’d of had about enough of genocide but it remains as popular as ever. It’s kind of the default bottom rung along with sexual slavery and kidnapping for body parts. You’ll be gratified to know that there is an official list of world problems (suitable for framing) and that those little gems all made the cut.

The list of the Top Ten Problems of Humanity for the Next 50 Years reads like a David Letterman top ten monologue of the apocalypse. The list is as follows:

Energy

Water

Food

Environment

Poverty

Terrorism & War

Disease

Education

Democracy

Population

Genocide

Other Atrocities (e.g., trade in women and children for sexual slavery, or kidnapping for body parts)

Weapon of mass destruction (nuclear proliferation, chemical weapon proliferation, biological weapon proliferation

Transnational organized crime

The single word entries are by qualified scientists unassociated with any partisan think-tanks or groups with a name that ends with the word “Institute.” The intensely verbose entries are by “The High Level Threat Panel of the United Nations.” Typical of decision making by consensus. Everybody in a group effort wants to get credit. Whatever is gained by overall consent (if not exactly agreement) and the resolution of objections, is bought at the expense of brevity.

Admittedly this list is more than ten and, ok, it’s a combination of a few “Lists of 10” but that just goes to show you how discombobulated we are as a species. No doubt, there are plenty of animals that foul their own nest but I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones that have a real good look at the pile and then sit back down on it.

And its not like I’m a big news hound. I’m informed to the point of worry but ignorant enough to avoid being paralyzed with fear. I like to think of it as a balanced approach that favors sanity. And, in any event, I don’t believe my hand wringing changes anything about the forces in play. Still, I resent the partial reporting of news and how it has become a way of leveraging offscreen private interests. It’s little wonder that people like their tranquilizers. I want to be tranquil too but I think drooling is unattractive.

Did you know that Americans eat about 25 million Percocets and Vicodins a day? Over 244 million narcotic prescriptions a year? Holy cow! No wonder we can’t get off the couch. It’s a testament to our boundless stamina that we can even operate the remote. But that doesn’t explain or excuse Ranch Dressing flavored Doritos. Caffeinated candy bars, Torture, Tilapia, Fried Twinkies, Corporate Hegemony or Low Carbohydrate Beer.

Thankfully there is an explanation. My dad is presently a day older than god. But back when he was in his sixties and between marriages he had a girlfriend. She was a prominent doctor at an important teaching hospital in Philadelphia. She was super smart, attractive, caring, worldly, affectionate and willing. Unfortunately she also reminded him of his own mother so the relationship was doomed. Nevertheless, she had a wealth of clinical experience and she understood all these trends. Her insight was as follows: “95% of everyone is an asshole.” Assuming for the moment that I am in the 5%, who am I to argue?

I don’t watch television and I haven’t in many years but it is almost all anyone talks about anymore. Maybe that’s not true where you work but it certainly applies to the pudding-heads I’m mixed up with. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great bunch of guys but they think that TV is real. They think watching television is an activity. Like playing tennis or reading or going for a walk. And I suppose it is an activity if you take out the active part. From their conversations, it sounds to me like going to your job and having some network air the results is now cause for celebrity. Hell, you don’t even have to go to work. I’ve heard them talking about celebrity video gamers, celebrity card players, celebrity eaters, celebrity adulterers, celebrity driving, shopping, dieting and dancing. Those last two, you can have separate or in combination. Aren’t those things we already do ourselves? You know, except for the adultery. That’s always someone else. Just ask the moralists.

For many people, life has become a spectator event. Safe at home, life has been outsourced to onscreen professionals. But to hear tell it, they don’t do any better of a job than we do. Often times not even that good; and that’s saying something.

Add it all up and it just seems like this is the worst of times.

And you know what? We already know what’s going to happen for the rest of the century. Do we really have to slog through the particulars? Way hotter, lots of extinctions, rising sea levels, mass displacements, environmental degradation, overpopulation, famine and wars. Lots of wars. Wars for resources, civil wars, culture wars, holy wars. Pretty much wars for war’s sake.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

I say no!

Let’s not bother. I’m ready to move on to the 22nd century right now. Who’s with me?

History only looks linear because we’re standing at the end of the line. I say let’s break the line. Let’s put an end to the tyranny of chronology. The narrative is ours to arrange, or rearrange, as the case may be. Historians and pundits do it all the time. Let’s take the present and just push it into the past. Let’s allow the glorious past to become the future. And let’s take hold of that shining future and make it our magnificent splendiferous present.

Genius right?

Ok, so let’s take a look at some long term predictions about the 22nd century and see what “far, far better things” we have to look forward to.

……Oh my! That’s not good.

You know, I was talking on the phone with my mom today. She has a new hip and its working out great. And as I sit here on my sofa, writing on my iPad, drinking fair trade coffee with the smell of bread baking in the oven, the kids evolving around me and my wife tossing me a wink, I suddenly realize what they mean by the duality of life. Yes, spring came a month early this year. It is worrisome! But the flowers are lovely.

I guess when Dickens said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he had a good reason for putting it at the beginning of the story. It’s the beginning of every story! It is the human condition. Every moment in history can be characterized that way. There are surprises in store but there are no endings. And as the cheat sheets remind us:

There is a constant tendency toward violence and oppression.

There is always the necessity of sacrifice.

There is the ever-present possibility of renewal and redemption.

Palm Reading

Palm Beach is not a place that invites comparison. It is not a place that makes you think of other places.

It might be a place that other places makes you think of, but no place comes to mind.

The basic components are the same as any beach; sun, surf and sand, but here, even those few elements mess with your expectations.

The sun is sharp, the way it is at high altitudes where the air is thin. But of course the air here is heavy with water and the essence of plants. Like a character in a movie it seems to be more itself than it is in reality.

The sand is not so much pulverized stone as it is finely crushed coral and shell; ground down so fine that it fools your toes. It takes me four days to realize this and only after having built multiple sand castles with my three little guys and digging countless holes looking for sand crabs for them. I don’t find any but on the fourth day a fellow walks by with a five gallon bucket half full of them. Like in their hurry to avoid me they all jumped into his pail. It feels a little personal.

I have also been digging up dozens of Burrowing Crab holes that have not once yielded a crab. On our last day, I run into Mr. Sand Crab again. It is he who actually tells me the holes I’ve been digging up are Burrowing Crabs and he says he sees them all the time. He’s starting to get on my nerves. I’m also beginning to think this beach is deliberately toying with me.

And then there’s the water. I give up on the water. Twenty years working on the water; high water, low water, slack water, up and down twice a day but this tide is a mystery to me. Each day the ocean seems to choose a tide it likes and it stays at that level all day. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We are three families on vacation with five children among us; guests of old and dear friends. The kind of friends that cannot be made after a certain age. I don’t know if it’s the shared battles of youth or the constraints of adulthood but the depth of feeling, of trust, is not possible after a certain age. Once you know who you are it isn’t possible to know other people in the same way.

On our last morning, looking out on the Atlantic, there was a low water calm and no breeze to speak of. I went about gathering mask and snorkel and boogie board and set out upon the quiet sea to discover… whatever.

As I wade into the surf my feet press down on the mortal remains of countless sea animals deposited over tens of millions of years. I walk out about ten yards, lie on the boogie board face down and paddle. The bottom gives way to nothing but rippling sand for a long while.

The optical properties of mask and water make it appear that I am in just a few feet of water but putting feet down to test for depth I am unable to find the bottom. I let go of the boogie board and plunge headlong into this other atmosphere. The bottom is a foot or a yard or a mile away. However near or far, it is beyond my reach. I return to the boogie board and resume my effort. I paddle for what seems like quite a while but time, like distance, is difficult to gauge on the water where no reference points exist.

All of a sudden I see a silver fish and then many and within a few minutes I am floating over thousands of them. Big and small but all appearing to be the same. Herring I’m told; slowly swimming and as calm as the rippling sand. I look down on them the way aliens must look down on us, with detached amusement.

My mask, pink and perfectly fitted to a ten year old girl, is slowly taking on water. I lift my head to clear the water and have a look around. Calm sea. No indication of what lies beneath the surface, beneath my dangling feet. Hidden yet totally exposed. Head down and there they are completely out in the open. Head up, gone. Down, up, down, up. These two worlds spanned by my body and by my attention. My head in the clouds the earth far below my feet and me suspended like a hopelessly undereducated astronaut.

Tomorrow I will be back in New York at work and I will open the paper and find a picture of a twelve year old boy smiling next to the carcass of a 551 pound Bull Shark caught at Palm Beach. It will be declared a state record besting the previous carcass by more than 30 pounds. But that is tomorrow.

Today I am far out in the water off the beach. It seems probable that one of the boats that I can see from my low position in the water is the one carrying the boy to his inevitable destiny. He doesn’t know that he is heading toward the shark. The shark doesn’t know that he is heading toward the boy. And I certainly don’t know that I am likely swimming between them.

Each of us has a date with death. This boy will be the agent, the proud agent of this sharks demise. It makes me think how odd it is that we picture the grim reaper as a tall, cloaked and hooded figure, quiet as the grave. It is not so. Each of us is the agent of death for each of the other. Sometimes it is in one great struggle. A struggle that may be going on even as I am afloat in the warm waters, face down, immersed as I am in this cradle, swimming with the fishes. But more often I think that we are each, incremental slayers of each other. It is no one great battle but a thousand skirmishes that does us in. As the father of three boys I say this with a lot of confidence; the devil isn’t in the details, he’s in the other room fighting with his brothers.

Returning to the house, the villa, involves a transition from the beach through green gardens that surround it. Gardens that include a private nature trail. A description of its lushness seems pointless. I’m not that articulate. Take my word for it, it’s lush. Really, really, lush. The owner, father of our hostess, is a self described “frustrated architect.” He is also an accomplished amateur landscape architect and collector of exotic plants. The house, private apartments arranged around a sliced coral courtyard and fountain is all white columns and tuscan terra cotta roof tiles. The rest is greenery.

It’s on the beach but nestled in among the palms and aloes and whatever else you call these shady cool bushy broad leafed things and in this it is unusual. You might say that its most prominent feature is that it’s concealed.

I’ve been up and down this beach and every house, great or grand, palatial or simply extravagant, is fully exposed. Some beyond great incongruous lawns, others right on the beach but all with a pornographic full frontal quality; “Hi. my name’s Lance. What’s yours?”

But this house, this restrained house wrapped in its protective gardens appeals to the blend in, assimilate, stay below the radar jew in me that has I’m sure, to some extent, made me uncomfortable with aggressively promoting myself. On the other hand I haven’t had my village burned recently so survival-wise it seems like the way to go.

That of course is not a problem that the owner of this place suffers from. Yet the place definitely says something about the man. He has carefully and shrewdly guided his legacy, the family business. He has made it into a giant, privately held corporation that you very likely never heard of.

In this house we are not so much guests as we are a group mingling around food and drink, pool and beach, reading, music, talk and quiet.

There is no timeline and no schedule. Nothing seems imminent. We are each moved as movement dictates. We are somewhat amoebic in our integrations and disintegrations.

We are all, in our middle age, bonded in our common sense of leisure. There is no other agenda and nobody has anything to prove. We are each ourselves within our capacity to be ourselves. We are all comfortable with quiet. The lack of entertainment affords unlimited opportunities to notice the minute details of pleasure; small scenes, textural contrasts, atmosphere.

The young are, as ever, immune to pleasure confusing it as they do with excitement. But I have no old man’s lament about youth being wasted on the young. For although I was young once, and wasted, now I see it as each according to his ability.

OMG

                                                                           Illustration by Clayton Mednick

As you know, I am not a person who goes looking for the hand of god in everyday events. I believe everyday events, by there very nature, are beyond god’s management. I don’t ascribe meaning to random incidents, accidents or unusual combinations of numbers.

Much is made of so called miraculous recoveries from medical maladies but as a matter of statistics they fall well within the curve of possible outcomes. In fact, most of the “miraculous” part is added by people and media looking for the hand of god in otherwise ordinary outcomes. It just goes to show, if your always looking for something to confirm your belief system, then your going to find it.

For instance, people talk about the miracle of childbirth. And you know, if it weren’t for the eight billion people crawling over every square inch of the globe I might be inclined to agree. But really, with over 380 thousand kids born every day and the very function of life being continuity, there doesn’t seem anything remotely miraculous about it. If anything it seems commonplace, even inevitable. Practically mechanical.

Survived a plane crash? So did most of the other people who have ever been in plane crashes. It is rare to the point of miraculous when everyone on a plane is killed.

The Virgin Mary’s profile on a potato chip? You want it? You got it!

9-11? Everywhere you look. Same as it ever was. You’re just looking for it now.

It’s called Confirmation Bias. People tend to seek out, focus on, and remember information that supports their ideas and beliefs while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts or undermines their beliefs.

Why is it that people thank god for the recovery of a desperately ill child but they don’t blame god for trying to kill the kid in the first place? Confirmation Bias.

It’s why professional athletes thank god for the big win but they don’t blame god for the crushing defeat. Also because cursing god negatively impacts the bottom line of product endorsements. Simultaneous Confirmation Bias about both god and money. Not exactly a shocking revelation.

However, even I have to admit that once in a while my thoughts turn to god when there is a sign with clearly inescapable religious significance. The sign in question was seen by my own self in the sermon case outside of St. James Episcopal Church, 865 Madison Avenue at 71st Street, founded 1810. It read:

Does God Really Give Fashion Advice?

A sign from god? I like to keep an open mind so here we are giving it a little consideration.

It seems to me that before you ask the question of whether or not god gives fashion advice you would want to consider if you would even trust that advice. Sure it’s god but still, you have to be a little skeptical, right?

God and fashion?

(1) Is it Possible? I suppose anything is possible.

(2) Probable? Well, on first blush it doesn’t seem like a great fit.

(3) A good thing? Hard to imagine really.

The question of god being a good source of fashion advice is, admittedly, not the kind of thing one considers very often. I haven’t read the bible but I’m a big fan of religious radio shows. It is no small point of pride with me that I was listening to Harold Camping of Family Radio predicting the end of the world years before the end of the world didn’t happen. It seems to me that Family Radio’s byline “Feeding the Sheep” should have been the mother of all neon signs warning that anything coming across their airwaves was tongue in cheek, hand in wallet bullshit but did I mention Confirmation Bias?

My sister used to have a housekeeper named Ella Mae. Ella Mae summed it up this way; “I don’t know why everybody make such a big deal about the end of the world. Every day it’s the end of the world for somebody.” True Dat!

In all my years of listening to Brother Camping’s gravely voice peel the proverbial onion of scripture I never once heard him comment on the benefits of, or god’s preference for, florals versus checks, pleats or no pleats, wide lapels or narrow. One assumes that god prefers a necktie over an ascot but that’s just an assumption. Collar or no collar? Two button, three button or four button dress suit?  In fact, although I know it to be a mortal sin to wear White Bucks before Easter, I don’t believe that rule dates from the Roman Empire.

Tunic and cloak? There’s just nothing eternal about those threads.

Ok so let’s get back to the source of this conundrum. I’m not familiar with the Episcopalians so I had to look them up. It turns out they are the Americanized Anglicans. When the American colonies seceded from England it was necessary for the churches here to secede from the Anglican church because the Anglicans swore an oath of loyalty to the crown. So if the Episcopalians are basically an English order you have to figure any fashion advice would have to touch on the basics of English taste; namely Paisleys and Cross Dressing. Of course that also casts doubt on the Necktie versus Ascot assumption. Religion is so vexing isn’t it?

But doesn’t this all skirt the issue of expectation? What is it that we want from a god anyway? Is fashion really a good use of the almighty’s time? Isn’t god busy with something else? Anything else? Everything else? As it turns out, not really.

The physical universe is governed by physical laws. These laws are unbending both backwards and forwards in time. Using even our imperfect knowledge of these laws we are able to make accurate predictions about future events as well as accurate predictions about what the past will hold as we unravel every story of creation. It is these immutable laws that make accurate predictions on the macroscopic and microscopic level possible.

So, within the principals of uncertainty, the universe is a predictable system that runs itself. God doesn’t really need to bother with it. In fact, god can’t bother with it. The universe is itself beyond tampering with. That’s why we don’t see phenomena that don’t conform to physical laws. In other words, if it can’t happen, it won’t happen. Weather, while notoriously difficult to predict, does not happen in a way that is beyond explanation. It doesn’t rain cats and dogs. It doesn’t rain money. It may rain on your parade but it doesn’t rain rare scotch or cheap wine. It only rains water. That’s all. The fact is, many of life’s mysteries are not actually all that mysterious. You can see that the realm of god is actually a pretty narrow set of possibilities.

So what does god do with all that free time? When we complain of something taking an eternity, it’s only a metaphor. For god, it really is time without end. God must have been bored senseless.

Then along comes fashion. It is unfathomable. Truly unexplainable. And in that regard it seems like fashion may be an appropriate place, perhaps even the best place, for god to exercise the old creativity. Certainly it offers us a plausible explanation for Kilts and Burqas. On the other hand, while I suppose there’s something alluring about a nuns habit, these are not examples that inspire faith, for lack of a better word, in god’s capacity as a go to source for fashion advice.

Still, god can only work within the limits of his public and the tolerance of shareholders. The market is fickle and even god cannot afford to alienate followers or tamper with the brand image. You know, I’m starting to see the lines converging here. Maybe god really is an arbiter of fashion. But fashion in a really broad sense. Timeless, classic, refined, transcendent. That’s it! Transcendence! Of course! Art is a reflection of its creator and if the creator is, THE  CREATOR, what else would you expect? Religious crackpots (that seems like a redundancy) are always shouting “god is great” but maybe the reality is more subtle and nuanced. Maybe god is not simply great, but more importantly, god is graceful, majestic and elegant. Maybe god is, dare I say it? Fabulous!

So I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on the question now. It seems like god probably does give fashion advice. God’s tastes run to the restrained side. For the most part god eschews flash except for production numbers involving Pharaoh, at which point god is not above a little flamboyant ostentation though always steering clear of garishness. A certain austerity pervades god’s best work. God prefers an earth tones palette and traditional materials; flax and wools; silks for special occasions. Mantles and headdresses are common accessories and light footwear is a must. And jewelry. God simply loves a little sparkle. But tasteful; always tasteful.

God’s advice, like so many before, well not actually before, but like so many since, is likely to be about the fundamentals, while emphasizing brand authority.

 “I am thine God.”

“All powerful and not entirely displeasing to the eye. Yea even fetching in the right light. Thou shalt know that thine god’s couture is original and copyright; sovereign and inviolate.”

“No knockoffs or else. Do not tempt my wrath.”

“Thine god loves you and blesses you with this fashion tip which truth is eternal.”

“It is not what thou weareth. It is how thou weareth it.”

 

“Now I, your god, command you to go forth and be your ravishing self.”

What I know

Hey Drew,

They say the first rule of writing is to write what you know.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

Writing about what we know is a challenge because what is it that we really know? And just because we know it now doesn’t mean that our entire knowledge of the universe won’t be overthrown in 5 minutes because of some sub-atomic particle that, according to an expert team of international widget tweakers, changes everything we know about the universe. Now don’t get me wrong, I love widgets as much as the next……..widget lover but to say that I am out of my depth gives the barest nod to the deep well of my ignorance. I want to know about widgets! I long to be part of the big idea even if it means having just enough understanding to hold over the heads of the guys at work.

But of the universe what do I really know? I know that the universe has billions and billions of stars because Carl Sagan told me so and Carl Sagan would never ever lie to me about a thing like that. I guess that effectively covers it.

Ok so maybe I don’t really know that much about the universe. You know it’s all hear-say anyway. It’s not like I have personal experience that I can lean back on. It shames me to admit this but I have had nothing to do with the Superconducting Super Collider on any level. I didn’t design it. I didn’t build it. I don’t push the buttons. I don’t interpret data. I don’t sweep the floors and empty the trash at night. There. I’ve said it. Ok, so maybe I should be sticking a little closer to home.

I think it’s safe to say that the things I know about the universe are the same things I know about our galaxy and the 8 previously 9 planets of our solar system, Pluto now being considered a Planetary Body or Dwarf Planet or Trans-Neptunian Mass as opposed to a planet. I know that to be a new fact and I agree with it but I haven’t a clue why. Probably I agree with this new nomenclature because the fact that someone is out there giving this a lot of thought is comforting and I don’t think their efforts should go unacknowledged.

The earth, I know some very specific things about because I have first hand knowledge. It seems that even personal experience is subject to doubt and believe me when I say I am the first to doubt myself but I am firm in my convictions about these few things.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cannot dig a hole to China with a spoon. Even a soup spoon. How do I know this? First hand experience. I tried it. And not just once either. As a kid, going on the advice of my parents and reassured that China was on the other side of the world I relocated my ass to the back yard and began digging.

Every child is an egomaniac and because this is so, there is a moment in every child’s life when the dagger slips into the soap bubble. Every child is forced to say “I am much smaller than the world.” “It really isn’t a small world after all. It’s me. I am small. The world is gigantic; just fucking huge.” Or words to that effect.

And then the short sharp shock of sure knowledge.

“The world is separate from me.” “Separate!” It is the pivotal moment between self centered and self conscious. That was my moment. I doubt I made that hole a foot deep.

To my own credit I must say that anyone else would have left it at that but no, not me. Once I became an artist I decided that digging a hole to China was a thing worth trying again and documenting. So you see not only did I do the original experiment but I was able to recreate my experimental results. And I have pictures, documentary evidence in the scientific parlance. Back to my parents back yard. This time I used a shovel. Turns out to be a glorified soup spoon but I knew that when I started. I got about 6 feet down before I started bringing up civil war era garbage, mostly thick glass bottles.

Bumstead’s Worm Syrup ••• One Bottle Has Killed One Hundred Worms •••

Children Cry For More •••Just Try It.

My parents house was built on a landfill. This I know.

I repeated this experiment on the beach at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. If you dig a hole at the beach you hit water. This I know.

I did it behind a security fence in a mid-block, empty building lot in New York City on 29th Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue across from that beautiful little church, The Church of the Transfiguration, better known as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” Trespassing attracts cops. This I know.

And finally, I worked on a building foundation at 161st and Broadway several years ago. We hit bedrock at about 55 feet below broadway and then the hoe rams, the big jackhammer attachment on the excavator, chopped out the base and corners all nicey nice before we poured the slab. It took months. I’m told that from my childhood home in the suburbs of Philadelphia to Cowpai, China is 7900 miles. I didn’t take that measurement myself but I believe it to be true within a small +/- factor of error until someone with a pocket protector states differently. All of these first hand experiences effectively have me convinced that I know you cannot dig a hole to China.

I’m sure I know other things about the earth but it’s all the stuff that everyone else knows so writing about it is a losing proposition.

So that reduces matters quite a bit further to what I like to call local knowledge. Things that you know because of intimate familiarity. There was a period of time, in fact a long period of time, when the only thing I would order at a restaurant was a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake. The restaurant of choice was The Hot Shoppes, first brainchild of J. Willard Marriott, of hotel fame. It was a place with a large eat-in dining area surrounded by a drive-up eat through your car window perimeter. The girls didn’t wear roller-skates but I do recall there was a lot of orange and white in the uniform. I’m sure they all smelled like melted Creamsicles.

Everything they served at the Hot Shoppes was comfort food and Oh it was good. The savory, the sweet, a mild crunch, the fat and salt. The cool moist acidity of the tomato. The cold clean wet crispness of iceberg lettuce. Whoof, is it getting warm in here? It was all taste and what they now call mouth appeal. Texture, slipperiness, resistance, the sight, the sound of it being “masticated”, in short everything about the food except the flavor and nutritional values. Not so long ago I was reading a book called Visual Illusions by Matthew Luckiesh, copy write 1922, that explained to me that a pretty long time previous to him it was discovered that “the sensation of taste is subjective; it is in us, not in the body tasted.” A little morbid in its formality but the meaning is clear. The taste is in the taster, not the food. A bit counterintuitive but that gives it the ring of authority. So now what is it that I really know? That the meal was tasty? That I am tasty? What I know seems to be colored by the same kinds of things that effect mouth appeal.

I know that vampires are scary even though one of the things I think I do know is that there are no such thing as vampires. So if they’re scary it must be that vampires are like food. The vampire is in the taster. You thought the vampire was tasting you but no. It is you tasting the vampire tasting you that you are tasting. Well, that certainly adds clarity doesn’t it.

I know that candy is bad but Chocolate, chocolate is food. I thought I liked chocolate. Now it turns out there is a flora of some kind, bubbling away in the gut, that flourishes on chocolate. And when it doesn’t get chocolate it gets stressed and sends out an urge. So where is the free will in this calculation? Where am I? It turns out that what I know is complicated not only by the question of knowing but by the question of what constitutes I.

So it seems that what I know is subject to change. In short, the truth, which is only another way of saying my truth, is subject to change. That’s fine. I’m good with that but it means that there is no fundamental truth. What we know is only that which we believe.

If you believe in the tooth fairy or god, what is the difference? These are your truths. I don’t believe in god. Not even a little bit. I believe in the need for god but that is an entirely different question. My financial advisor says there is no profit in atheism. A nice pun, yes? His point is that if you are right, there is no gain and if you are wrong the losses are big. I dispute the lack of gain. I believe atheism is a positive influence in my life, actions and thinking. He thinks the possibility of hell is worth considering. Recently he said to me, “Listen. Eternity is a really really long time. Take it from me, I’m married, I know”. I persist because there is no other way for me. I am a product of The Age of Enlightenment. There is no turning back.

So what is it that I do know? A few important things.

I know my mommy loves me.

I know that to err is human and that to forgive is human too.

I know that seeing is misleading; illusions are legion.

As a corollary:

I know that the camera always lies.

I know that the bigger they are, the more it hurts when they hit you.

I know that when a boss tells you that you have a great future with the company it’s time to look for a new job.

I know that like seeks like and opposites attract and that this is not contradictory.

I know that it’s not possible to learn from other’s mistakes.

I know that life is, in fact, a dress rehearsal. The actual performance was cancelled because the entire audience is on stage.

I know that money can buy happiness if you know where to shop.

I know the best laid plans don’t go astray. That’s what makes them the best laid plans.

I know there was a time that I would go down to the Reading Railroad tracks and put down a penny for the commuter train to flatten. I know there was a time that I would not hesitate to break into an old empty house and run around inside and generally make myself at home. I know that the world is packed with stupid people and every year there are more of them, but that may have something to do with my proximity to Staten Island. I know that raising kids is harder than everyone makes it out to be. I know that shouting is a tool and sometimes the only tool that will do the job.

I know that there are two kinds of people. The kind that think there are two kinds of people and the ones who don’t think there are two kinds of people.

I know that when the automated, voice activated, routing system, help line says “thank you” it doesn’t really mean it.

I know that one size does not fit all except in the case of M&Ms which could not be larger or smaller without upsetting the balance of crunch to squish.