The Art Opening

Sculpture: Tom Butter

I went to a friend’s art opening the other night. I entered the building, stopped to check the directory to locate the gallery and turned to find my pal Tom standing right behind me. That’s a good sign since a trip to a gallery where I don’t know anyone is usually brief and depressing. Brief because I don’t much care for looking at new art and depressing because artists are, as a rule, terrible conversationalists. Artists don’t talk so much as they give a point by point recitation of their resume. It’s a transparently self-centered exercise and unforgivably dull. The only upside is that invariably these people’s egos are as fragile as the thin film of burnt sugar on a creme brûlée. It’s a combination that fairly demands a little soft tissue probing. Torturing artists can be fun but it’s so easy it barely qualifies as sporting.

Tom thinks that I’m macho because I’m in heavy construction as well as the fine arts. In fact, a lot of people seem to think I get a lot done for someone with three kids, a full time job and a so called career in the arts but Tom genuinely seems to be impressed by it. Maybe he’s just shy and it gives him something to talk about. We are friendly now and there is a real warmth, but that was not always the case.

Tom is a sculptor I met back in my Philly days. I worked in art galleries as a preparator, which sounds like a salad position in a restaurant but is more like a salad position in a gallery. You know, hang the work, paint the walls, date the receptionist, that sort of thing. Back then, Tom was one of the few artists whose work I could really identify with. He lived in New York and was in a good gallery and he taught and was good looking and super talented and he has a great last name; Butter. Tom Butter. How can a name like that not shine? It’s inevitable. Like an unfair advantage. Tom was also mysterious and ultra-smart. For me, he was an artist to be like. Not that I wanted to make his work, or have his life, but I wanted to be a respected artist with important things to say, a good gallery in Manhattan, an exotic girlfriend and a great name. Man, then I would have it all. Back then it didn’t seem like too much to ask, it just seemed so far away. Except the name. That! That was too much to ask.

I felt back then that a good first step would be to befriend this guy. It wasn’t a strategic move, it was simply that I wanted his approval. Like many young people and not so young people for that matter, I sought the approval of those I respected who were in a position of authority. I guess that’s normal and certainly beats seeking the approval of those whom no one respects and have no authority at all. Better to aim a little higher, I say.

Well naturally I didn’t get his approval which should come as no surprise. I, and almost everyone else, always look for approval from those who won’t give it. Which is probably just as well. Where is the value of something that is given away for free? I was forced to admit that, unfortunately, this was going to require some work. If I wanted respect, I was going to have to earn it. In fact, I was never able to find a way to talk to Tom at all. I’m sure I was awkward but I also think he was a bit tightly wound.

Years later, after I moved to New York, I would run into Tom every so often at his art openings or at Parsons School of Design where I worked as a technician at night and he taught during the day. It was always the same. A simple hello; totally ungratifying. Even more so because he was so animated with his students. Eventually it dawned on me that he was comfortable in a position of authority like the student teacher relationship. All I needed was to put myself in that position. In other words, all I really needed was a question.

By this point I was more grown up and beyond caring about the approval of others. Age and the daily abuses of heavy construction had pretty much cured me of that, but Tom was a loose end from my youth. My desire to connect with him had lost its sense of urgency and need; it was now more like a hobby.

Around this time, it so happens, I was working on my own show. It was my third solo exhibition and I was trying hard to grow the work around a tightly focused idea. I always underpin my work with a ton of research and in this instance I was meddling in art history. History is a place I have an interest in but I probably shouldn’t be allowed to go. I have a terrible memory and I’m not a stickler for facts, even when I know them. I had been doing research on the mathematics of Postwar American Art. There has never been a period of such raw experimentation with such astounding successes and yet that aesthetic passed away like all the others before it.

To me it was a mystery and I thought if I revisited some of the more formal tactics used by the greats I might learn something. Maybe some of that greatness would rub off on me.

I was using everything from John Cage’s chance operations and Myron Stout’s handmade, obsessive precision to Barnett Newman’s personal preferences for canvas size. From the standard intervals of Donald Judd to the variable intervals of subway stops on the A Train between West 4th and 125th street, I used it all.

I couldn’t see it then but I realize now that these names were the superheroes of my youth. I did not read comic books until I was in my twenties when I stopped watching television. But as a kid I would always look through the picture books in our house and, my father being an artist, all the picture books were contemporary art books; all the magazines were art magazines.

I was trying to tether my work to this most explosive period of American Art when I ran into Tom at school. I cornered him, if it can be said that someone can be cornered in the middle of a hallway, and shot him the question that I’d been rolling over in my mind and which doesn’t seem to be answered in any book. It is also the question which I had formulated for just this occasion. The only other question on my mind was: “Will he take the bait?”

As any fisherman will tell you; when you go fishing it is important to know your prey and to use the right bait. The right bait on the wrong hook will not get you dinner. The wrong lure in the right place will leave you hungry. But if the lure is convincing and the fish is provoked and you are quiet, all that remains is patience. I am a patient man.

Hey Tom,

What was the failure of modernism?

.

.

.

.

.

.

Jackpot!

This Old House

Good morning deviants. This post is going to be a short one. I’m having house problems.

Last week I noticed that my porch roof looked rather….soft. A slight gap here, a small twist there and all of it leading to a sense of unease. I decide to take a day off from work, tear down a few boards and look to see what the problem was. In an old house like ours, that’s how this stuff starts. You pick at a crack in the wall and suddenly, so it seems, there is a gaping hole and a pile of plaster at your feet. There are no small jobs in old houses.

You always hear the lament that things aren’t built the way they used to be. That’s true. There is no horse hair embedded in the plaster, over the rough coat, over the wooden lath, past the uninsulated gap to the brick. But once I removed the porch ceiling I could see that this house was built before building codes or basic common sense. There is a general sense of know how with a strong sense of “Git ‘er done!”

My 90% deaf friend Vinnie was doing some work in his old house. He was shouting the details of his discovery at me even though I was standing right next to him. He was redoing some plumbing and found that there were no pipes in the walls. All the water was being moved around the house through garden hoses. I think the sense that craftsmanship has slipped away is mostly based on a reduced amount of building ornamentation. Buildings just don’t look so grand anymore. Houses are startlingly efficient but not visually impressive. And unless your wealthy, I guess that’s always going to be the trade off. Me? Two weeks into it and I’m just trying to finish this damn thing.

Now, I could describe the problems that I found when I took down the ceiling and I could lay out my plan of action because, after all, I am a man of action. I could do a “This Old House” point by point reconstruction complete with product endorsements but no. First off, there are people better equipped to do that than I. Lots and lots of people. And, in fact, they already do. And while I may bring a certain slant to the writing end of this project I don’t bring any actual skill on the construction end. Yes, I am a Dockbuilder. A tradesmen in heavy timber, concrete form work, pile driving and all the other gentlemanly arts. But house carpentry? No. Dockbuilders refer to carpenters as “termites”.

There is no “wood” where I work. Where I work, there is only timber. No 2″ x 4″s. No plywood. The smallest piece of wood I work with is a 4″ x 12″ and, except for tying a patch into the middle of a repair, we use the timber full length; 20 feet is our shortest. The larger stuff, the backbone of our work, is 12″ x 12″ x 24′. All our timber is Greenheart (clorocardium rodiei) an extremely dense, strong, weather and pest resistant hardwood from the rainforests of Guyana.  All the timber is handled with the crane.

At my job, there are no nails or screws or adhesives. No paint. No table saw. No chop saw. No dinky claw hammers.

At my job, timber is cut with a chainsaw, pounded in place with a sledge hammer, drilled with a pneumatic drill, and bolted together. The shorter bolts weigh about 8 pounds each.

I have a mind that can wrap itself around the problems of large projects, because large projects are fundamentally about tearing out bad and bolting in good, in a pattern that will resist the piloting errors of ship’s captains. But there is something small and precious about house carpentry that kind of eludes me. For instance “fit” seems to be important. I’m going to have to pay attention to that. In Dockbuilding fit is less important than overall mass.

And all these little tools and screws and plastic widgets and batteries. Everywhere I look I have rechargers winking their lights at me accusatorially. And every year there are hundreds of improved products. It’s like being a doctor. You have to keep up with every development.

Or not. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Well, not decided. I’m doing it the only way I know how.

Git ‘er done!

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

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

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70’s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

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.”

Tick Tock Diner

Time, so they say, is irreversible. The Past, so they say, is different from the future.

Time does not stand still.

I went to college for seven years. Even so, I am at least a couple of years away from a Bachelor’s Degree. My freshman year was three of the best years of my life. The same could be said of my sophomore year. So much for the vaunted rules of time.

One of those sophomore years was spent at the University of New Hampshire. I lived in a house with 15 other people. We each had our own room of a divided up old Victorian. We shared three bathrooms and two kitchens; one on the ground floor and one on the third floor.

The ground floor kitchen had several refrigerators. We each had a section of refrigerator but my friend Dave likes to tell it that when I was hungry I would, in his words, forage through them all. Forage is his word now. I can’t think it or say it without making a mental note of him.

For the record and in the interest of fairness my friend Dave disputes many, if not most, of the facts in this story. However, since I am the writer, I would like it known that Dave is a notoriously unreliable, not to mention uncooperative, witness. Furthermore, during this time, Dave was a degenerate drunk, an unrepentant sybarite and a known communist sympathizer. And it is This Reporter’s Opinion that he also practiced….. WITCH-CRAFT!

That said, I don’t recall if I treated all those refrigerators as my savannah but it’s entirely possible. I still eat that way when left to my own devices. I’m less of a hunter-gatherer and more of a scavenger. An opportunistic eater one might say.

Apparently I was able to avoid drawing predators, in the form of angry housemates, by employing a survival mechanism that I like to call Nibble and Move. Pretty self explanatory and altogether successful when coupled with the track covering behavior of fluffing the refrigerated leftovers to camouflage my covert snacking.

The upper kitchen was outside of my natural habitat but not outside of my interest. I used that kitchen to boil road kill that my Anthropology Professor had buried for a season. You know, to get the last furry bits off. He was making a skeleton collection of local fauna. I don’t know what I was thinking but I’m afraid I thought it was a good idea. His name was Howard Hecker.

When Howard and I first met he said ”Mednick eh. Are you related to the poet Mednick?” I answered that I thought it was possible but probably not. Then he asked if I knew Hecker flour and of course I did. Even back then, barely nineteen, I occasionally baked bread. “Yeah” he would say, “I’m not related to them either.”

One of the fellows who lived in the house was named Robert Armstrong. “All American Boy”, my mother would always say when hearing his name. Surprisingly, his was not the most memorable name. That belonged to the birdlike and serious Cat Sleep. A definite top floor turret dweller, she lived in the round room. She was serious, industrious and motivated. A genuinely diligent student, she would make any professor proud. We shared nothing in common.

Over Christmas break, Robert Armstrong, “All American Boy”, had moved out and now lived at another house out in the boonies between Dover, where I lived and Durham, the town where the University was and I presume still is. That house was called Shaky Acres and every full moon was occasioned by a Full Moon Boogie, after the song of the same name by Jeff Beck. I can no longer remember how many of those Full Moon Boogies I attended but whatever the number I can only recall one. And of that one I remember nothing. I don’t think it was because I’d had too much to drink, although chances are pretty good that I was drunk, but only that so much time has passed.

Everyone thinks about time. The great distance between then and now. Where does it go? Whatever happened to my dearest what’s her name that I loved so well? How did I become here? How did I get here is a question of time as much as circumstance but adds the fleshy dimension of history and the question of free will.

History is the accumulation of events. Events exert pressure on subsequent events.

Pressure subverts free will.

My friend Mike is a city planner or would be if he weren’t working for the MTA. There was no work in city planning and after years of trying he settled for the MTA and a steady meal ticket. Mike’s family came from Ireland in the 1840’s, driven by the potato famine. After passing through New York harbor they joined the push west to Ohio and opportunity. And then on to Illinois. Failed farmers they joined the California gold rush. And then north. And then back east to Chicago. Finally settling down in New York, the very place they had departed more than one hundred years earlier. A trip of generations in search of a bite to eat.

Were they really making choices or were they pushed along by the force of history? Is it free will to follow a trail of survival? Are any of us exercising anything more meaningful than the choice between low fat and skim, caf and decaf? It’s the past. The past propels us forward. Again and again we steer blind but experienced, into the headwinds of the oncoming present, looking for calm and a cessation of hunger.

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.