GETTY’S GOT NOTHING ON ME

In the middle of my latest attempt to bring my office back from chaos into order, I actually began looking at all the stuff I’ve collected. Out-of-print books, a couple of original paintings from an artist I consulted for, framed posters, a neon sign I’d been given by a friend that spells ZACH’S (the name I planned to use whenever I fantasized about opening a bar), and many deco pieces along with a fine gathering of Bakelite radios. Nice things, mostly hunted and gathered years ago.

Now I collect art. Sue collects art, but in a very different way. She looks for paintings, small sculptures, and photographs created by as-yet-unknown artists. Sue, like me, has gone through different collecting obsessions but for the most part has stuck with her holy trinity. For quite a while she also had her “junking” friends keep an eye out for different body part sculptures but that’s seem to have (no pun intended—right) petered out.

I’m different. I want the masters. I want what museums have. And I get ‘em. I bring a notepad and pen whenever we visit an exhibit or gallery to write down artists’ names that I like, then return home and turn on my computer The Google is my personal art repository.

Then I collect. Some connoisseurs specialize and curate, I am eclectic with enough resources (hard drive memory) to indulge my fancies. My private gallery: my desktop image.

Rothko

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I need a calming influence so I might choose one of my Rothko’s.

 

If I’m feeling playful I spend some time with Pop Art:

Lich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometime I enjoy a dose of sophisticated irony and turn to Christian Schad:

 

Shad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or jump to one of my go-tos, Max Beckmann,

Beckman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and of course, Otto Dix.

OttoDix

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For politics my Mexican muralists often fill the bill: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and my favorite David Alfaro Siqueiros.

 

Siq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many moods, many great pictures. But in truth, for me the rubber meets the road with Photorealism. Yes I enjoy Picasso and Modern, the great masters, street art, and pretty much any school that speaks to me. But give me Audrey Flack,

 

Flack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Goings,

 

Goings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and especially Richard Estes.

 

Estes

 

 

 

 

 

I guess I’m wedded to reality and it shows.

 

Okay, I can’t actually afford to buy anything by these artists, but I don’t have to. My laptop has the world’s greatest art collection and it’s free!

(Did I mention my naked celebrity folder?)

Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination. ~ Oliver Sacks

RT. 66

Not the highway. Not the song. (Yes, there is a song.) Rather, the long winding path that leads to the Social Security office where I visited last week

This was a funny birthday. Not ha, ha funny. Odd, really. The day came and went without sturm und drang, included a nice dinner out with Sue and Jake, and a sweet telephone call from my older son Matt and his wife Alyssa. Unlike last year when I fell into a funk about mortality (mine), this year seemed smooth sailing. Even after I left the Social Security building there was still no depression.

It was something else entirely, and it hit a couple days later, actually on my music night. I totally sucked. Really sucked. So bad that when I began my lesson, I had trouble playing without squeaking and squawking.

It wasn’t the horn.

I made it through the lesson despite doing everything wrong. Then came time for playing with the ensemble (Polar Vortex). In general, I have difficulty playing at a fast tempo (even a medium tempo to be honest). That night I could barely get my fingers to move at all. It got so bad that for the last 20 minutes of our session, I just stopped playing, sat down, and wondered what I was even doing in the group. I had long before come to terms with being its worst player, but never felt so defeated. Often, exactly the opposite. When I struggled, it usually gave me greater determination to try harder. Not that night.

Much later, lying in bed watching Pawn Star re-runs, I tried to figure things out. Somewhere between a reproduction Gatling gun and a signed first-edition Edgar Allen Poe, I started to get it. There simply isn’t enough of my life left to become a decent musician. The night at music school had been a metaphor for decisions taken and, more importantly, not taken. Despite having always wanted to play an instrument, why hadn’t I first started to learn music long before? Why hadn’t I begun lessons, something where I don’t have natural talent at the time when I began to write—where I do have natural talent? It could have, should have (?) been reversed.

I guess “what ifs” and “if onlys” smack everyone upside the head some time or another. Sue teaches at a “low residency” MFA at Lesley University and, frankly, I’ve been pretty jealous. I’ve helped people with their writing, but working with students on a regular basis would have given me great pleasure. But if you only have one diploma (8th grade) despite attending high school, some college, part of a master’s program, and creating a school for high-school dropouts in Chicago, the end result is strikingly clear.

No teaching for me.

Other decisions also steered me in directions that precluded others. During that long, television-lit night, I reviewed every single one of them. Why did I leave Chicago’s People’s School? Why did I stop my counseling practice in Boston when I knew I was really good at it? Why did I fight my agent, editor, publisher about what they wanted, when I had a critically acclaimed set of novels under my belt. Why did I just stop writing?

Why did I choose serial careerism instead of becoming really, really good at one thing?

Sleep, wonderful restorative sleep. Next morning (after my usual growling, semi-hostile, coffee-deprived wake up) I reconsidered. Sure I’d made decisions that offed alternatives. Everyone does. And, I’ll make book that everyone has regrets similar to what I’d been feeling.

Three cups of coffee and I finally saw daylight. Understood what had immobilized me the night before and saw my way out from under. Blood under the bridge is indeed, blood under the bridge. I have a wife I love and who loves me, children and a daughter–in-law I adore, and oncoming granddaughters. I’ve worked and continue to work with people I respect and who respect me, friends who have my back, and more than just food on the table. Truth is, I can turn my head 180, look at the decisions I did make and feel satisfied.

Bottom line: I got it good and that ain’t bad. Better get my ass back to practicing the sax.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Vital Signs by Sherri Frank

Maybe it’s time, maybe it isn’t. With my other cat, Cleo, it was clear when I needed to put her to sleep. She’d had surgery to remove tumors in her belly. A year later, cancer filled her lungs with fluid and she was panting, her mouth hanging open as she breathed. At the animal hospital, they drained the fluid but said it would come back. I had three more weeks with her before she started panting again. When an animal is in pain and struggling to breathe, the decision is clear—though never easy. I called the hospital and took her in.

But with Gino, it’s not so clear. For months, he’d been losing strength in his back legs. He went from limping, to falling over, to not being able to stand at all within a year. Diagnosed with a degenerative spine disorder, he dragged himself around the house using his front paws, his lifeless legs trailing behind. But his appetite was the same, his energy was the same, his spirit was the same. Surgery wouldn’t fix it, a specialist said, and his functionality would only get worse. But he wasn’t in any pain.Gino 2014

So be it, I thought. He just needs a little help.

I helped him walk upright by looping a cotton sling beneath his back legs and walking alongside of him. When he had trouble getting into the litter box, I cut the front part of it so he could drag himself in and out. I held up his hind quarters while he did his business: Love, it seemed, had no limits.

But little by little he became incontinent, leaving a trail of urine—and sometimes feces—wherever he went. Soon, he bypassed the litter box altogether. I tried puppy diapers, but they slipped off his skinny haunch no matter how tightly I secured them. Most of the time, he stunk like piss and shit, so I bathed him on a towel in the bathtub, holding him so he wouldn’t fall over; soothing him while he cried.

“Maybe it’s time to put him down,” a friend said.

I shook my head. “Not yet.”

I spent a fortune on paper towels, bleach, and Swiffer wet cloths, wiping up urine and disinfecting floors. It was a lot of work and took up a lot of time.

Still, he was my “Gino Love.” The same “Little Man.” “Handsome Boy.” “Sweet Potato Fellow” whom I’d loved for 17 years. Eating his food with gusto; sitting on my lap with a puppy pad beneath him. How could I consider ending his life just because it was getting difficult to care for him?

At night, I used plastic garbage bags and towels on my bed so he could continue sleeping with me. Good thing I was single. I’d lift him onto the bed and he’d pull his body up to my pillow. Nuzzling his head in my neck, he’d fall asleep purring. Several times each night he’d slide off the bed for food or water, crying when he was ready to get back up again. I kept a flashlight nearby so I could find him in the dark.

To be honest, there were days when I couldn’t take anymore. Days when work had been too long and too demanding, and when others in my life were also clamoring for attention. Coming home to a house that reeked of piss, and a cat that kept pissing even as I tried to clean him up, was more than I could handle. I’ve yelled at him. I’ve picked him up roughly to move him to another spot in the house. I’ve wished he were gone. Though I know those feelings are normal for anyone who’s taking care of a sick person or animal, they left me with a guilt that was difficult to shake.

“It’s selfish to keep him alive,” my friend said. “You need to think about his well-being, not yours.”

But it felt selfish to even think about putting Gino to sleep. I worried that I’d be doing it for my own sake: So that my house would smell clean again. So that I could come home, drink a beer, and eat dinner right away instead of mopping floors and washing towels. So that I could go out after work and not fear the mess I’d find when I returned late at night. In short, I worried that I’d be putting my cat to sleep because it would make my life easier; not because it was the best thing for him.

In the absence of pain—or other obvious signs like vomiting, listlessness, and loss of appetite—what constitutes suffering? What constitutes a diminished quality of life for an animal who can’t tell us what he thinks or feels? That’s what it came down to.

According to the American Humane Association (AHA), it’s a judgment call. “You may ultimately need to make the decision based on your observances of your pet’s behavior and attitude.” I wasn’t sure I trusted my own judgment, which was blinded by love and (sometimes) exhaustion. Yet, because I knew Gino so well, there was no one more qualified to make the decision. The AHA provides a list of signs that might indicate a pet is no longer enjoying a good quality of life. Gino displayed two of the seven signs:

  • He cannot stand on his own or falls down when trying to walk
  • He is incontinent to the degree that he frequently soils himself

Rather than help, this only made it more complicated. We don’t put people to sleep when they can no longer walk, or when they’ve lost control of their bladders and bowels. Should it be any different with our pets? The answer is debatable, of course.

These days, I remain diligent about watching for signs of Gino’s deteriorating health. I take him to the vet for regular check ups, where we no longer talk about treatments, just palliative care. It’s getting more and more difficult to keep him clean, keep the house clean. But he still enjoys lying in the sun curled up next to my other cat, Josie. They groom each other. If I’m late feeding him, he slides over to the electrical outlet and gnaws on my computer cord until I pay attention. He paws at my feet when he wants to sit on my lap. He purrs while I pet him and bats at the ties on my sweatpants. He wants to investigate any new box I bring into the house.

When I look at him, I see an animal still engaged in living and loving, despite his disabilities. And perhaps that’s the best indicator of what he wants.

For now, it’s all I have to go on.

WHAT’S A FAN TO DO?

It’s right before the quarter-finals of the World Cup and I’m shaking my head while staring at the remaining teams. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to be a sports fan. People I know generally root for their hometown teams past or present—sometimes both. Those are almost always long-term relationships that usually last a lifetime whether the team does well or, in the case of the hapless and hopeless, Chicago Cubs’ fans—need I say more?

World Cup soccer isn’t as simple. I’m a sports fan and where I do appreciate the beauty of play, I gotta root for someone. That’s the fun. When I’ve got no personal loyalty I usually find out who the underdog is and take its back. I just can’t imagine being neutral watching sports. I’ve never watched any game as a dispassionate observer.

This isn’t my first head shake since the tournament began. We’re talking country against country here, which trumps my underdog fallback policy. Most Americans who follow the Cup simply root for the US unless they had a different country of origin. Even then I’d guess most root for both. And while I love a whole lot of stuff about this country, it’s too difficult to tease out my nation’s team from the horror our government (both Republican and Democrat) has inflicted upon the Iraqis, Afghans, and every country against which it has waged outright and covert war since World War Two.

Yeah, I’m the same guy who has argued it’s okay to separate a person’s achievements from his or her personal life. Never had a problem enjoying Picasso paintings despite his misogyny. Or laughing out loud during Woody Allen films despite his controversial marriage. So why not do the same thing here?

Because I just couldn’t. I know the team had no hand in our ugly. But I still couldn’t stop cringing every time I heard the chant, “USA! USA! USA!

Since I was watching a lot of Cup games and gotta root, I began my quest to find a country in each match to support. And, while I have no doubt that Mexico’s corrupt government has committed egregious acts of injustice and violence, I’d just spent a terrific couple of weeks there (see my last two posts). Hypocritical perhaps, but that experience allowed me to inexplicably push their crimes out of my mind and cheer. I had a team. For a little while, anyway. Unfortunately they didn’t get out of the Round of 16, but I did and wasn’t done with the Cup.

So, as I write this, I’m left with the following teams to root for: Brazil, that spent billions to host the tournament while just out of sight from tourists there are people who live in shacks without running water and about 15% of the country’s deaths are due to transportation accidents, violence, or suicide.

Gonna pass on Brazil.

And so it goes. No full face public burkas in France despite a Social Democratic government. Germany, well, I have historical problems there. Argentina, whose government slaughtered 15,000 to 30,000 political dissidents including trade unionists, students, and journalists in its “Dirty War” (Guerra Sucia).

I don’t think so.

That leaves me Columbia, Netherlands, Belgium, and Costa Rica.

I could probably find historical or contemporary fault with each of these countries but I have a personal connection with one. My older son Matthew spent a high-school summer with a Costa Rican family learning Spanish. Plus, Costa Rica has no military. So, for the time being (at least until they play the Netherlands, the clear cut favorite) I have an underdog team to root for.

Ain’t I the lucky one?

Truth is, I’ve learned something important writing this. There was a guy, a regular customer in my father’s tavern, who had a jones for betting on horses. His method?  Spread The Racing Form on the bar in front of him, take a needle, close his eyes, and dot the day’s races with pinpricks. He’d note the horses he’d hit, go to the telephone booth and call his bookie. I could do the same with the world map and find that every country I touched would leave me feeling sick. Some more than others, but very few without some quease. Even the ones I’ve never heard of.

Maybe that USA chant isn’t as bad as I first thought.

“This may not be the best of all possible worlds, but to say that it is the worst is mere petulant nonsense.” - Thomas Henry Huxley

SOUTH OF THE BORDER: PT.2

After last week’s column about Mexico, a close friend pointed out that Sue and I had been in Mexico as tourists (true) and, as such, saw the best face of the country (also true). Went on to express her admiration of Mexican peoples’ working and family ethos. Then added that Mexico’s judicial system is based upon “guilty until proven innocent,” something that is radically different (unless you’re a person of color in the US) than our own “innocent until proven guilty.” I immediately searched Google. Evidently, in June 2008 Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon, signed a law of national reforms of both federal and state level justice systems which included the presumption of innocence and a defendant’s right to a public trial. The entire series of reforms are to be completely implemented throughout the country by 2016. Also, my friend neglected to mention that Mexico has no death penalty, an attitude a hell of a lot more civilized than here.

She also wrote about the high level of violence due to drug cartels and named a number of areas that included a high proportion of border towns. Absolutely true and horrible for ANYWHERE, but here’s the rub. Cartels in Mexico control approximately 70% of the foreign narcotics that flow into the United States which includes, according to the US State Department estimates, 90% of the cocaine that enters our country. Let’s get real here, we’re the cartels’ consumers. How about a sane drug policy that would significantly reduce the associated violence both in Mexico and the United States?

But these columns were never intended to bite into Mexico’s social structure, legal system, immigration issues, or violence—as real as they are. We were tourists and my hope is simply to present facets of our neighbor most Americans never get to see. Believe me, there will be plenty of political posts from this seat. Just not today.

 

IMG_2587We chose to visit Oaxaca because Sue had been there a number of times (long ago) and thought I’d love the town, people, and its amazing history. Luckily we ended up with a high octane dose of all these things by chance. Turns out we visited Oaxaca City during the highlight week of the State’s 482nd birthday. With huge posters announcing their “Cultural Blockade,” streets were closed to cars to allow for a multitude of events including public story-telling,

 

IMG_2715

street sculptures,

030

marimba jazz bands,

a 482 piece orchestra,

 

 

 

 

and outdoor fashion shows,

and even outdoor fashion shows.

We had stumbled into an amazing 24/7 party where entire families, from infants to grandparents, participated together. No spring chickens, even we realized that 482 years is something to celebrate.  And so we did.

 

While the festival was an incredible rush, it was Oaxaca State’s complex history that was truly an eye-opener. Three millennia before the 1521 Spanish invasion, this region contained about16 different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, and traditions. Monte Alban had been inhabited over 1,500 years by a succession of peoples—Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs and served as the Zapotec capital for thirteen centuries. Tough to swallow but Monte Alban was a city of 40 to 50 thousand people that, for no known reason, was abandoned beginning around 850 A.D. No known reason. That’s one long term head-scratcher. Now Monte Alban along with Mitla (the second largest city in Oaxaca during the Zapotec heyday) are two of Mexico’s most famous archeological ruins.

The Aztec capital of Gran Tenochtitlan — (which eventually became Mexico City) — fell in 1521 to Hernan Cortes of Spain. After the fall of the Aztecs, Oaxacan Zapotecs attempted alliances with the Spaniards. Instead Spain set out to conquer Oaxaca and grab all the gold and silver in its mountains–a shitload of money in them thar hills. But 20140425_172229the Oaxacan peoples were conquered, not by Spanish arms and soldiers, but by religious psychological warfare and an army of priests and friars. In 1560, the Dominicans reported that the natives were converted, completely docile and submissive.

Or dead. It’s estimated that in 1519 when Cortes arrived the population of Mesoamerica was around 25,000,000 people. By 1605 75% to 90% were gone—primarily to European diseases against which the natives had no immunity.  A pretty grim annihilation.

Mole

Spices that create mole

We spent eight days in Oaxaca City and barely scratched its surface but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that two of its most famous products are many different types of mole and a particular type of black pottery.

OaxacanBlackpotteryvasecutoutmexico111711donasofia

 

 

 

 

 

The last part of our trip was four days in Mexico City. Since we’d been there before and had visited most of the major tourist IMG_2746sights and museums, we decided to stay at a small hotel located between two interesting neighborhoods—La Condesa and Roma. Although recently known to be artsy, the architecture is an incredible mix of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and modern. (This mix is partly due to earthquakes which destroyed some buildings and left others standing so the rebuild created a mélange.) In fact, one of Mexico City’s most famous Nouveau buildings is located in Roma.IMG_2780

 

 

 

 

 

There are many art galleries in the two neighborhoods and we found one small museum that was presenting an exhibit of artifacts donated by individuals that represented their broken relationships, along with the person’s accompanying story. 2Rasta2773

 

As if in contrast to the exhibit, on the sidewalk outside the museum, people kept putting locks proclaiming their love for each other on iron fences.

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There were a ton of hidden treasures in both neighborhoodsIMG_2811 and, despite one trip outside to the city’s new modern art museum, Museo Soumaya, after four days there was still more to see in these two neighborhoods; restaurants, parks, and walks.IMG_2736

 

 

I’m an urban guy with concrete in my blood so cities fascinate me. And Mexico City sits right up there with Paris (my favorite), New York, and San Francisco.

I’ll end this piece where I began. I know there’s an ugly underside to Mexico. An ugly underside to every country, really, and I hate those horrors. But there are times to grab hold of life’s pleasures, and some of life’s greatest pleasures exist south of our border. I just wish everyone had a chance to enjoy them.

The world is like that — incomprehensible and full of surprises~Jorge Amado