Thursday, December 29, 2016

PICTURING THOUGHTS

I'm always fascinated by stories involving the discovery of a vocation. I myself have no particular "aha moment" when I knew I'd be a writer, but I do know that I had my heart set on this at an early age because my mother often used to tell me so, when I was older. It was perhaps her reminder, in part, that drove the decision that I made, after twenty-five years in the academic world, to quit the profession cold turkey and become the writer I'd always known I should be. More power, I say, to those who had their vision early and had the courage to stick with it. I'm not sure whether this is the case with David Friedman, who tells today's story. David describes himself as a "visionary colorist." He lives and works in Hawaii--which is certainly a fine place for a visionary and a colorist to be! It also happens to be his birthday today, a nice coincidence. You'll find a couple of his images below the text. His memory is called...


PICTURING THOUGHTS
by David Friedman
June 15, 2016
Honolulu, Hawaii 


Photo: courtesy David Friedman
I must have been 6 or 7 years old. Chicago. My home town.

My Dad asked me something, a question. I don’t remember what it was. It doesn’t matter. I know this story because my mother told me about it years later.

She told me that he had asked me a question. I was silent.
I didn’t know the answer. Well, maybe if I did, I just maybe couldn’t think of the words. He asked again.

I was flustered, frustrated. I was really trying to think of it … just couldn’t.
Mom saw that I was stuck, getting anxious. “He doesn’t know” she said. “Stop expecting him to answer.”

“No”, Dad replied. “He knows the answer. Wait… he’ll think of it”.
He persisted, believing, I suppose, that I really did know it, that I would think of it… eventually.

I picked up a stick. I scratched something in the dirt. I drew a picture 
of what I had wanted, tried to say, what I couldn’t say with words. I drew the answer. 

I made a picture, and he got it.

From early on and to today, I illustrate my world as an artist. I draw ideas, portray my feelings 
and picture my thoughts. I would grow up to document my life in a cavalcade of images, a visual parade full of color and light that would capture, in magic moments, the trail of my life.


David Friedman, Pathmaker: Walking the Talk, 2001,
       acrylic, 36” X 24”

David Friedman, New Path, 2016, acrylic, 40” X 30”

Monday, December 19, 2016

BAR MITZVAH, REVISITED

Just a couple of days ago I posted a bar mitzvah story, along with some thoughts about how the expectations of parents and the experience of required compliance as an adolescent can ruin a person's attitude toward religion for the rest of one's life. Here's another, strikingly similar bar mitzvah story by a very old friend of mine, a decades-long neighbor who is a confirmed skeptic in matters of religion. He prefers to remain anonymous.


CONFESSIONS OF A QUASI-JEW

I was born September 18, 1931 the third child of Jewish parents, Sal and Muriel.  We lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in the east side of Chicago, near my father’s tire shop.  Although we were not strict adherents of the dogma of our religion, we enjoyed participating in many of the rituals and ceremonies common among our peers.  So it was expected of me to be Bar Mitzvah as my two brothers were before me.   Since Hebrew, which was unfamiliar to me, is the language of the ritual, I was to be tutored privately by a rabbi. My mother made the arrangements and at the age of twelve, I began the journey to manhood.

The designated tutor lived outside of our neighborhood a half-hour bus ride away.  Each day, Monday thru Friday, after regular school, I made the journey to his home to spend the hour learning to become a better Jew. I carried a velvet bag that contained the vestments of the rite: a skull cap, a prayer shawl, and the wrapping of the arms.  They belonged to my much older brothers, my mother told me. Be respectful, they are very old, she added.

I was a twelve year old, beginning a yearlong journey, alone and apprehensive. Would I live up to their expectations, I wondered as I knocked on the door to my tutor's residence?   When the door opened, I came face to face with an elderly man, with a long, white, un-kept beard, a shabby stained coat, and a body odor of musk and sweat.  I remember his face, pocked and heavily scared, his deep, dark eyes, and the dirty white hair that cascaded over his ears.  It was his voice that I remember the most. You must repeat what I tell you, exactly what I tell you, he said, in a voice that was harsh and almost guttural. But it was his admonitions that scared me the most.  My parents told me that I must respect such a learned rabbi who had graciously agreed to tutor me.  But each day's journey became more painful and each session more difficult.  A year seemed like an eternity and I counted the days to the very end.

I did complete the rite of passage.  My tutor told me that I did well and my parents and brothers were pleased.  I have since met gracious and inspiring rabbis, but the vision of my tutor, forever etched in my psyche, can never go away and I will never forget the trauma of that experience.  Although I am a child of Jewish parents, I find no comfort or solace participating in the religious dogma.  I remain to this day a quasi-Jew.






Thursday, December 15, 2016

CONFIRMATION

Today's boyhood memory is another one of my own:


CONFIRMATION
by Peter Clothier

In view of the recent bar mitzvah post--and another one to follow shortly--I have been trying to remember something about my own confirmation, at about the same age. Alas, I remember very little. There must have been a bishop involved, the Bishop of St. Albans, and the ceremony was surely at my father's church. I think to remember a feeling of excitement, a sense of the importance of the occasion. But the only solid memory I retain is my father's gift to me: a leather-bound copy of St. Swithun's Prayer Book...

It was a solemn, reverential gift. I recall the feel of the soft leather of the purple binding and the thin, crisp pages, edged with gold. The front cover was embossed with a gold cross. My father explained how it should be used in preparation for confession; there was a whole section of the prayer book devoted to long lists of sins to be used as a guide to nudge the guilty conscience. As I recall, the lists were quite specific---no area of sin was left unmentioned--and my father urged an attentive reading of the contents before showing up in the confessional.

I did go to confession. My boarding school--the flagship of the Anglo-Catholic Woodward schools, founded in the 19th century--had an unusually large neo-gothic chapel that was placed prominently on a bluff overlooking the delta of the River Adur and the town of Shoreham, Sussex. The confessional box stood in one of the side aisles, and a short line outside would await the attentive ear of the school Chaplain.

My sins had mostly to do with the secretive acts committed--with some frequency, I have to say, in my case--by all boys when they reach the age of puberty. These I kept largely to myself, or covered up with a speedy generalization about wicked thoughts and deeds. There were others, less serious in my estimation, having to do with such things as envy, gluttony, pride, sloth, and so on. Many of these I invented, for the sake of having something to confess. And I knelt in the confessional and confessed with a kind of skeptical awe, for already I did not believe in this judgmental God and his religion. I did it because I did not wish to offend my father who, I thought, would hear of it from the school Chaplain if I did not show up.

But that book, I do recall. The weight of it in my hand, the print on its thin pages... Whatever happened to that little book, I wonder?

Monday, December 12, 2016

BAR MITZVAH

Today, a different kind of torture--the kind parents inflict upon their children when it comes to matters of religion. For me, it was Christianity. And it wasn't exactly torture, more a long, slow process of required attendance at chapel for a variety of services--twice a day, at my boarding school, and three times on Sunday--at a time of increasing disbelief in the God I was supposed to be worshipping. I was bored. I relieved the boredom--forgive me!--by wearing a hole in my trousers pockets in order to attend to something that interested me a great deal more than the scriptures.

Marc Zeitschik describes the ordeal of a Jewish boy required by his parents to be initiated into the mysteries of their faith. As it happened, they remained pretty much a mystery--as they do, one suspects from the tone of his story, pretty much to this day. Like myself, Marc is a former academic; his field was sociology and anthropology. After a second career in the field of publishing, he is now actively engaged in contemporary art scene in New York and travels widely in Europe and South East Asia.


MY BAR MITZVAH
by Marc Zeitschik


At the age of ten and a half I began studying at what is referred to in English as Hebrew School but what is called in Hebrew “Talmud Torah.” The point of this “school” is to prepare one for his Bar Mitzvah, that ancient ritual in which, by reading from the Torah, he now becomes officially an adult member of the Tribe. This takes place sometime around his 13th birthday, the actual date decided by something having to do with the Jewish calendar. The calendar determined that I would be a bar mitzvah (or, as we put it, bar mitzvah'ed) on February 6, 1960. So two years before that very important date, in the Fall of 1957, I was enrolled and began making the trek, three times a week, after school, from home to Talmud Torah Beth Yehuda, a shabby, makeshift “house of study” composed of two rooms in the basement of a three-story apartment house, not unlike the building I lived in three blocks away. Each of the dark, damp, often chilly, bare rooms had a large blackboard, an old metal teacher’s desk and several rows of movable school chairs, occupied on most days by about twenty unruly, unhappy, Jews-in-name-only pre-adolescent boys, all of whom were there for one reason only—their parents made them go. Dominating this space, black hatted, in a black vested suit with a white shirt buttoned to the neck, full black beard and with long curling side-locks was Rabbi Pultman; and, assisting him and learning the trade, his young acolyte, Rabbi Weill, dressed the same but fair-haired and with only the slightest and least threatening of beards. What Rabbi Weill lacked in fierceness of gaze he tried to make up for in the loudness of his voice.

This was the fifties, a not-yet-enlightened period in American history, and certainly not in the history of second-generation working-class Jews in Brooklyn. Back then it was normal, acceptable even, for a teacher to berate you, to be smacked on the hand with a ruler, to be given various forms of punishment for your lack of knowledge or respect. The behavior of the rabbis then would be intolerable now and no parents of today would suffer the despots who so obviously neither liked nor understood children.  I was a good kid and still got my share of punishments. My life was fine--at home, in school, on the streets--everywhere but in Hebrew School, where I was subjected to the whims, the physical punishments and the sounds and smells of the two rabbis. It was there that I felt degraded and there that I experienced fear. And for what end? Some time ago I found my books from Hebrew school and noticed numbers written in pencil at the ends of lines of text. I remembered what they were for. They showed the cumulative number of words I had read out loud within the one-minute time tests we were given every session. The goal was to be able to “daven”—to read scripture quickly during services. Not to understand but to be able to keep up.

Before the start of my third year I rebelled and refused to attend Talmud Torah any longer. I was putting my entire future on the line. Find me another teacher or forget the Bar Mitzvah.  Having invested so much already, having hired the caterer and the catering hall, having engaged the band, my mother having worked for several years in my uncle’s fruit store saving up to pay for this affair, what choice did they have? A Bar Mitzvah, a big Bar Mitzvah, a massive celebration involving every member of the family and all of my parents’ friends could not be jeopardized by my not appearing in the synagogue the day before this celebratory bash and reciting the words I never was taught to understand.

A private tutor was found. Several times a week a kind, elderly gentleman whose primary credentials were that he could read Hebrew and seemed to like kids sat with me in the kitchen of his apartment and taught me the portion of the Torah I would need to recite so as to fulfill my duties as a bar mitzvah, which I did. I appeared in my grandfather’s shul on the appointed day and sat with my father and my grandfather in the men’s section. We all wore prayer shawls over our suits and, in my case, sport coat...


At some point someone tapped me on my shoulder and directed me to the bimah in the center of the synagogue and someone else pointed to the place in the Torah from which I was to read and I read aloud the portion and everyone shouted “mazel tov” and threw candy at me and then, the next day, we had this really terrific party.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

MR. ELLIS

Today's story is my own--one of them. I have told it elsewhere, and in a variety of ways. It bears repeating here, I think, because it's not just my story, it's a story many men carry with them, sometimes for the rest of their lives, as wounds. For me, the telling has itself been therapeutic. That I need to tell it again suggests that the healing is not yet complete, and indeed it likely never will be...  

If there are those among "Boyhood Memories" readers who had a similar experience as a boy, I offer an ear and a place (this blog) to let it out--anonymously if preferred--along with the anger and the subtle complex of other emotional baggage that goes along with it.



MR. ELLIS: A VERY PERSONAL ENCOUNTER
By Peter Clothier
           
Mr. Ellis was a mathematics teacher at the exclusive private boarding school to which my parents sent me in the south of England. I was there from the age of six until I was twelve years old, when I moved on to “public” school. Mr. Ellis was a small, ordinary-looking, bespectacled man with thinning grey hair, an earnest mien, a ridge of wrinkles across his brow, and the smile of a benevolent uncle. With a white dog collar and a black cassock, he could easily have passed for one of those Catholic priests we hear so much about. Outside of school, in his regular life, he happened to have recently inherited a farm not far from the Hertfordshire village of Braughing (say it like “laughing,” with an American accent) where my father, an Anglican minister, was vicar of the parish. Learning of this felicitous proximity, and needing to spend a weekend away with my mother at a diocesan conference, my father gladly accepted Mr. Ellis’s offer to put me up for a night while they were gone.

They drove me there in my father’s sporty grey Armstong-Siddeley automobile and left me off in Mr. Ellis’s charge. I was, as I remember the occasion, at once reticent and excited. I was perhaps eleven years old. It felt odd, certainly, to be staying with one of my teachers, but he welcomed me kindly and we spent the afternoon exploring the farm-yard and the barns, discovering in one of them an ancient, upright motor car with dusty, decaying leather seats and brass lamps for headlights, now dulled with age and neglect. Mr. Ellis hoisted me up to sit in the driver’s seat and squeeze the rubber bulb of the horn, pretending to drive this magnificent relic from the early days of horseless carriage vehicles. There was much else, too, of similar vintage to be discovered and explored, and the afternoon passed quickly.

Then it was dinner in the cold, bare, stone-floor kitchen… and time for bed. Nothing, as yet, had alerted my body or mind to the advent of adolescence, but I was aware of a certain discomfort as Mr. Ellis helped me into my pajamas and tucked me up in a bed adjacent to his own. I lay there without sleeping for the longest time, listening to my teacher’s movements in the darkness as he prepared himself for bed. I was aware, too, of his breathing, his awakened state, and I think I may have held my own breath—in fear, or anticipation of I knew not what. Until he spoke… and there was a strange hoarseness to his voice.

“Are you awake?” he asked.

I barely managed a whispered, “Yes.”

“Are you cold?” 

It was, in fact, cold in that big old house. I was shivering. "Yes."

“Would you like to come into my bed?”

I recognized that this was not an invitation. It was an instruction, coming from my teacher.  I had been taught to do as I was told. And, really, I knew of no possible evil intent. 

I did know, however, that what ensued was not right. Imagine my shock when his head slid down under the covers, breathing heavily, and took that part of me into his mouth. I felt the response, felt a strange and—I knew—forbidden but still intensely pleasurable sensation that I tried simultaneously to resist. It was not right for Mr. Ellis to be dong this. I could not imagine what it was all about, but I was quite sure that my father would not approve.  

After some minutes down there, engaged in this peculiar activity, my teacher re-emerged, and I was left with the clear impression that there was something that remained incomplete, something that had been expected of me that I had been unable to fulfill. There followed more movement down there, the sensation of something strange and hot and fleshy pressed up against my body, along with a dangerous, musty smell that was entirely new. Then I heard Mr. Ellis say--coldly, I thought—“You can go back to your bed now.” And I did, appalled by what had happened, yet shamefully excited in a way I could not understand. Back in my own bed, I felt suddenly alone, dismissed, and with the feeling that I had somehow proved a failure…

My father came to pick me up the following day. On the way back home in the car he chided me for having seemed so rude and ungrateful when we said goodbye. He, too, was disappointed in me: he expected better manners from his son. I said nothing. What could I have said?

It was a year or so later that my father came up to my room in the vicarage one evening, before I went to sleep. He had received a telephone call from the headmaster of my school, to let him know that Mr. Ellis had been sacked for “playing around” with boys. Had anything happened, my father wanted to know, that night I had spent with Mr. Ellis on his farm?  I acknowledged, yes. A grave silence. Did I want to talk about it, my father asked?  I said, no. I would not have known how to talk about it. And my father said, Alright then, and quietly left the room. Closing the door behind him. I think he was simply too embarrassed, too ashamed of having misplaced his trust and exposed his son to this abuse, too devastated to know what to say himself. We never spoke of it again.

So, yes, it was a wound. Yes, I was abused. Yes, it went deep, and yes, there is a reason that the memory has stayed with me so clearly. There is a scar. I could attribute to the experience some of the inhibitions and reactive patterns that remain with me to this day: my reticence, my guardedness, my distrust of authority, my aversion to what I perceive to be any invasion on my privacy… Such explanations belong in the realm of therapy, and I do not discount their significance or value. It is possible, our culture has discovered, to repair such damage by means of bringing it to the surface and examining its effects.

For myself, I am no longer condemned to allow this past abuse to cause me perpetual suffering. I am blessed with the ability to choose the path of freedom. For those men and women, boys and girls who have been the object of similar abuse, I wish the same. From the work I have done with men like myself, I know they are more numerous than most of us can possibly imagine. The deeply human gift of sexual desire and the equally human joy of sexual gratification can all too easily be perverted. If those who read this story have their own, this blog invites their--if so desired, anonymous--participation.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

INITIATION


Today’s entry is a particularly special one for me. It’s written by Gary Lloyd, a Los Angeles-based artist who has been a close friend since the early 1970s. He’s partly responsible for my having spent four decades writing about contemporary art. A poet and a newcomer to cutting-edge art at the time, I went to see a show of Gary’s and was so appalled by what I saw that I simply had to write about it. I ended up with a 30-page poem that Gary and I together turned into a massive three-dimensional book, “Bob Went Home,” which had a hatchet handle for a spine and a galvanized aluminum cover with heavy dents made with the back edge of an axe. It is now included in several museum collections.

Gary says of the events he describes here: “It’s the day I became a man.” Which makes sense because as I read it, it’s an initiation story. In tribal societies the initiation ritual for boys is often conducted by elders; it is sometimes brutal, and nearly always involves the boy being sent out into the wilderness (or jungle) to confront nature in all its majesty and ferocity. Survival is the test and the guarantee of manhood. The rite is the one described by Joseph Campbell as “the hero’s journey”—a pattern of descent, ordeal, and return.

In our Judeo-Christian world we have for the most part abandoned the initiation rituals; “confirmation” (for Christians) and “bar mitzvahs” (for Jews) are pale substitutes for the rigors of survival in an alien world. This loss may explain the large numbers of even powerful men who wield their authority and live their lives as little more than un-grown boys. They have never made that ritual passage from boy to man, and consequently they wreak havoc with their wives, their families, their country and their world. I myself was fortunate—sadly only at the age of fifty-something!—to have learned the value of initiation and to have experienced a re-imagined version of it in the New Warrior Training Adventure sponsored by the ManKind Project. 

The story my friend Gary tells involves that ritual descent into the wilderness, the ordeal of a dangerous, frightening night out in the cold and dark, the return home in the morning. In his encounter with the majestic puma ...



... he learns to acknowledge and make friends with the little boy’s fear, and to walk away from the experience with a new power—and a new sense of himself as a man. He has acquired not only the experience of responsibility, in having to offer protection to someone other than himself, he has also brought away with him a mission that will guide him through his life: he will be the artist whose drawing of his fierce opponent foreshadows his later commitment to make fierce, confrontational work as an artist—the kind of work that so appalled me long ago.


Enough of my palaver, though. Here’s Gary’s story. I hope you find as much in it as I did:


INITIATION
by Gary Lloyd

It was Christmas and our family was spending it away from our home in L.A. in Mammoth, CA. The snow was deeper than my brothers and I had ever experienced, ten feet deep on the flat! Snowboarding didn't exist yet and we weren't skiers. We did have snow shoes bought for the purpose out of the CABELA catalogue. I was 14 and responsible for my younger brothers who were 11 and 6.  I packed lunches for us and off we went for a small adventure. I was a Boy Scout working up to being an Eagle Scout. My brothers were in Cub Scouts.  

It was a sunny but cold day around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. My dad and mom had purchased minimal toys. The money had been spent on our warm clothes, boots, hats and gloves. 

Our plan was to hike up near the ski area all morning then explore the terrain on one side. We found a beautiful small pasture with a trickle of water that was untouched, and game trails were all over the edges. I had my reference book that showed all the animals' foot prints common to the area. I was working on my tracking merit badge. Drawing and making plaster casts of footprints was how one was to prove the identification of each species. By noon we had found proof of rabbits, coyotes, deer, mountain lion, bear and the location of an eagle's kill in bloody snow, with evidence of a rabbit that had been partially eaten then air-lifted into the adjacent trees. 

I broke out our lunches in a sunny windless area near the fresh water and made a small fire to heat water for our hot cocoa. After lunch we were packing up my drawings. It was too cold to cast plaster at 8 degrees. 

Deciding to head back to our rented cabin, we followed our snowshoe tracks easily until the wind picked up and obscured our tracks, but we could glimpse our cabin off on the other side of the skiing area. Then the wind slowed down and it began snowing hard. After a short while we couldn't see more than 50' in front of us. The temperature was dropping and the light was falling. I thought we were about half a mile from our cabin but it was impossible to see. It soon became clear that we were not going to make it home by nightfall, wherever it was, for we had no bearings except for my compass.  

My brothers and I had snow camped several times before with my dad and grandfather so we knew what to do. By dark we had a good strong three-sided enclosure and thick roof built from dead wood and fresh pine boughs. We had packed the sides with snow and collected plenty of firewood. I started a fire to warm us. My youngest brother was worried about our parents but I consoled him by telling him that they knew we could survive overnight. As darkness fell we ate more of our sandwiches and slowly drank hot cocoa.  

By dark we were snug and quite warm, considering our predicament. We fell asleep together. I woke shivering at about one a.m. and noticed that the fire had nearly gone out, with snow falling heavily onto it. I quickly scurried about and got it going after awhile. It was near zero by now but inside our snug shelter it was above freezing. As I was knocking snow off my back with a pine bough I saw a flash of something really big about ten feet from me. I had spooked a big mountain lion that appeared to have been sitting downwind of our fire and about five feet from it! His tracks were all around our shelter.  

After scanning about with my flashlight to see if I could catch some glowing eyes reflecting back to me in its beam, I figured he was long gone. I made more hot cocoa and waited. I had packed my dad's .45 fortunately and this gave me some confidence. My brothers woke and we drank hot cocoa and they returned to sleep. I had decided not to tell them anything until the danger was over. Then I sat up with the gun in my right hand propped up on a forked stick.  

I must have fallen asleep shortly thereafter, because I awoke some time later. The big cat had returned to the edge of our fire. He was curled up asleep. I had set up a trip line between the fire and ourselves to warn me of his possible return. It was still in place. Clearly this was not an ordinary creature! I had also set up a remote spill pile with a jerk string attached to a lever in the strategic stack of firewood to easily feed our warming fire without having to get up out of our shelter to do so.  

I was shivering by now, both because of the near zero temperature and our guest's very close presence. I leveled the gun at the puma, hoping I didn't have to use it, and pulled the spill string so I could feed the fire. The moment I pulled it the puma jumped up and disappeared so fast that by the time airborne snow from his leap hit my hands he was gone!  

At this moment I had to piss so bad I couldn't bear it so I stood up and pissed behind our shelter. Then I heard his low growl for the first time. I had the gun in my hand but couldn't see him. I moved slowly back to my sitting spot and reset myself. I checked my wrist watch, two-thirty, then found a candy bar and ate it. Then I got my small sketch pad and pencil pad out and began to draw the puma in the flickering light.

I don't know when I passed out but when I woke with a start there he was in his spot, curled up and sleeping. I decided to draw him instead of shooting an alarm round to scare him away. After a hour I had a very good drawing of my by then fellow snow camp friend. At five a.m. my brothers began to stir. As they did, he slowly got up and stretched magnificently in the first light. He looked directly at me for up to a minute. By then my .45 was no longer in my hand. I sent him my version of a kind gaze, and after a few more moments he moved away towards the east where the sun was rising.  

My brothers began to wake as I was staring at him, but I had not moved or spoken. When he was out of sight they began asking all the questions one would expect. I showed them my drawing and described the night's activities to their amazement. By six we could see our cabin, not more than 200 meters away. We walked home to very worried parents. After a hardy breakfast we all walked back to our snow shelter and I recounted several times more the night we'd spent on Mammoth Mountain and shared the tracks of the lion and my drawing with my family.







GRANDFATHERS: "POP"

In response to a request sent out for grandfather stories, I received this one from Jules Lemelle--along with the painting that depicts his memory. It evokes a part of the country and a culture I know only by hearsay, and I'm pleased with the texture it adds to this growing collection of "Boyhood Memories."


POP
by Jules Lemelle
November 17, 2016

Pop was his name. That’s what my father and mother called him, along with all the aunts, cousins and uncles of the family.  It was nearly six years after my birth before we finally met alongside the road at his front gate in St. Laundry parish along Bayou Tesch. We arrived at dusk, and Woodson killed the engine of the fifty-five Chevy. It was easy enough to see him, all properly dressed in a starched white shirt and moustache to match a thinning head of white flax. The old man was a gentle soul; his only vice was Red Mule chewing tobacco and you could find discarded plugs of it dotting the damp ground amid the litter of cypress balls and curled-up leaves. There was a sternness about him that I didn't want to fully know, fearing that I might get sprayed with tobacco juice. Pop didn't have but a few teeth left and I suppose that’s part of the reason he always kept a fresh plug of tobacco in his mouth.

He made freshly ground French roast every morning before the roosters even crowed. That and a crust of pain fran├žais, au lait on the back porch, and I was off to school in a town called Big Knife or Grand Couteau. Pop would wave goodbye as the giant yellow bus pulled away from the farm, taking my older brother and me into town. School was just chaotic with bells between periods and lunch that I never ate. It was comforting to know that after a few more bells we'd be back on the farm dodging tobacco plugs and chicken poop on the way back into the house. Pop would have a fire going in the great room where we watched the flames dance and leap up the chimney. A gas pocket or two in the logs would give us a thrill, filling the room with surprise. And Pop would utter a few lines of French, but their meaning was lost on us two since our parents had long ago stopped speaking it. Nonetheless, we enjoyed listening to the old man speak in those songlike tones, reminding us of who we were and where we'd been.


Jules Lemelle, "Pop," 2015, oil on canvas, 16" x 20"







Monday, November 28, 2016

ON DEATH AND DYING

I do very much enjoy the fact that the voices on this "Boyhood Memories" blog are so diverse. Here's one that recalls the death of a sibling at a very young age, and reflects profoundly on the event itself, its meaning, and the lasting impact of the lesson it taught. I have had high regard for Howard N. Fox for many years, first as a curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and, more recently, as an independent writer and curator who is passionate about art and artists in Southern California and beyond. This piece is an extract from a letter he wrote in response to an old and dear friend--you'll see that her name is Rosemary--who had recently written to him about her own sobering close-encounter with the inevitability of death. As Howard notes here, it triggered his own memories and thoughts, which resound with a depth of acceptance, understanding and compassion.



BUNNY
(An extract from personal correspondence)
By Howard N. Fox

... As you said, "time marches on...and on...and on...until it stops!"  At least for each and every creature alive.  I've always thought about death--in an unseemly way according to my husband Douglas and to my parents, when they were still alive; maybe it's because I had a sister who died when she was only seven and I was only three.  I have only two memories of her--one, probably my very earliest memory, is quite pleasant: she was trying to comfort me by tickling me under my chin as I went into a bawling fit because my father was leaving the house to go to work.  The other memory, much less clear, was visiting her in the hospital when she was dying of leukemia.  I have zero memory of her funeral, and I'm quite certain my parents didn't take me to it, but I do remember asking my mother, probably a day or two later, where Bunny went.  She told me she died, that it was like going to sleep forever.  But mommy where is she now?  They put her in a wooden box and made a hole in the ground and put the box in the hole and put the dirt back on top of her.  The image I had then, standing in the laundry room of our house in the residential end of Atlantic City, was, quite specifically, that the box was an orange crate and that Bunny could see them putting the dirt back on top of her.  It was a disturbing image to me then, as it is now.

But I no longer fear for the dead nor pity them, nor myself for being among them one day.  The change was gradual but inevitable as I grew up.  However, the real realization came when I had neurosurgery on my left elbow at Cedars Sinai, I think about eight years ago, when I started to lose sensation and dexterity on the left side of my left hand.  The condition is called cubital tunnel syndrome–something like well-known carpal tunnel syndrome, but it occurs to a compressed nerve in the elbow rather than the wrist.  There I was, prepped and laying on the surgical table in the operating room and staring at the operating lamp above me, with its many intense facets and multiple lenses focused on my left arm.  As I was looking at the lamp, I felt something with the intravenous connection on my right arm, and I asked if they were ready to start.  The assistant surgeon declared "No, Howard, we're done.  You've been out for about 90 minutes."  I was amazed--flabbergasted.  I had absolutely no sense that I'd virtually ceased to exist as a sentient being for an hour and a half.

And truly, Rosamarina [my affectionate nickname honoring Rosemary’s Italian heritage], my immediate, first waking thought was that I have no need to fear being dead.  Not for myself or for anyone else.  I recall quite vividly being wheeled on the gurney into the recovery area with that idea firmly–and happily!–in my mind.  It was a life-changing--and I guess you could say a death-changing--experience for me.  (BTW, the surgery went fine.  The chronic tingling stopped, though as the surgeon explained going into it, I would never regain the feeling I lost nor the dexterity my body forfeited.  Big deal.)  The most salient content of the whole experience was that welcome realization about non-existence.

Of course there's a major difference between being dead and dying.  We can only hope for the best when it comes to dealing with the "endgame".  But the subtext of your letter is about engaging, or at least beginning to acknowledge that, perhaps, its earliest incidentals have begun.  To quote you, again, "Elevated liver 'counts,' anyone?"  Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt....  I've had one or two scares; and Douglas has had prostate cancer, has had a knee replacement, and has repeatedly had a procedure, under anesthesia, to burn away precancerous esophageal cells.  It's no fun, and it brings anxiety.  But neither are we afraid of the inevitable outcome.  As Voltaire says in Candide, the only thing one can do is tend one's own garden.  

It's a simple truth, but sometimes knowing simple truths is the most important thing of all.  I'm not a believer in any religion, you know that.  God forbid, were I!  But I recently re-heard a recording of Leonard Bernstein's “Mass”, which he was commissioned to write for the opening of the Kennedy Center.  The one line that I remember most from the time we saw it at Kennedy Center to the time I heard it last week as I drove on surface streets to Pasadena, is "God is the simplest thing of all."

I also remember reading an article about the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe, in which a physicist was quoted as saying "No God is God enough for me."  When you think about it, that's a rather profound statement, maybe not about religious devotion, but about the wonderment of it all.
I'm heartened that Brian is up and around again, attending to those myriad household details and maybe even returning to painting.  He's tending to his own garden.  Good for Brian...!


*****

PC notes: As to Howard's final paragraph, I take the liberty of appending this delicious quote from the astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan:







Thursday, November 24, 2016

FATHER & SON

A Happy Thanksgiving to all fathers and all sons! Here's a painting by Bruce Richards, an artist of meticulous skills, a wry sense of humor, and--not least in my book--a commitment to real human values. Thanks to him for allowing me use of this image.

Bruce Richards, "Father & Son," 1996, 3 3/4" x 5 5/8", oil on linen 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

FIRST TOUCH...

From "First Love," posted a couple of days ago, to today's "first touch". The author of this memory, Jorg Dubin, is an established artist based in Laguna Beach, who works with both paint and sculpture. As you'll see from the image below, he loves to work with the human figure these days, and is fascinated by the erotic. No surprise! His story describes the real physical excitement of the first discovery and the first tentative exploration of the body of a fellow human being. 

It's a great rite of passage. I'm still awaiting the next step in this progression: the first infatuation, the first touch... I'd love to have a memory of the first fully consummated sexual experience. Anyone out there? Or do I have to do it myself?



Jorg Dubin, "Pearl Earring," 2004, oil on linen, 48" x 36"


THE TIPPING POINT                                                                                                                             

When does that moment happen in life when girls go from being objects of ire and grossness to that of obsessive adolescent desire? I suppose it is different for every young boy. For me, the trigger was early in my young life and has informed my sensibilities ever since.

It started with me going down to the local five and dime and hiding a Playboy inside a Mad Magazine so as to disguise the naked lovelies from the clerk who watched my nine-year-old eyes grow wide with nervous anticipation. Oh, that feeling never leaves! Primordial human desire for the opposite sex and, for some, the same sex. No matter. The feelings are the same!

I knew that before long I would have to encounter something beyond the pages of a Playboy magazine. But how, and who, and what to do? No clue! How does one know such things at nine years of age?

Somehow, at some point, it happened! I am clueless even as to her name a half century later. We were young and curious in those first moments of discovery. What would it feel like to kiss with passion? To touch a girl in places I had only heard about from older boys? And yet there I was, with a willing partner (to a point), and hungry to find out.

Kissing her lips, touching tongues and fondling through her clothes... Jesus, I wanted more! My fingers’ first encounter with a bra! First on top of it! There they were! The young female breasts I had seen only in magazines, and now my boyish hands were around the real thing, the undergarment alone obstructing me from touching her soft, budding flesh. What now? More, please! I must feel her for real. But how? Hooks, straps, elastic!!! Why are these things in my way! How do I deal with them? If there were a God, he or she would certainly guide me through divine intervention!

Through sheer force of will and nature, my hand was finally able to caress her small but ample breasts. I couldn’t get enough! All my earthly desires now rushed at me like an unstoppable train. And what more is there to explore? My hands begin to move downwards towards the unknown. This is what I have been waiting for, longing for. Like nutrition for body and soul! Life, right there in my hands…


A knock on my bedroom door and, like that, my prepubescent party ended without conclusion, other than leaving me with an unfulfilled hunger. But the next day, riding bikes with my friends, the bragging rights were off the hook! I had been “there,” or close to there. I was no longer a boy. I had touched life and could not wait for my next encounter. I knew that it would happen sooner or later, but it would be several more years before the “big one”.

Friday, November 18, 2016

FIRST LOVE


We all remember it, don't we? That first moment of instantaneous attraction, overwhelming in its intensity? The pounding heart? The feeling of terrified inadequacy, and yet... the desperate need to say something, anything, to prevent the moment from slipping away before we're even noticed? The sense of emptiness and loss that's bound to follow...

Chris Gordon Clark remembers it. Sometimes I just run into a man who seems like he might be responsive and I tell him about my "Boyhood Memories" project. Sometimes the man responds with amazing enthusiasm. I ran into Chris outside the local pet store, where we had both been buying dog supplies. We stood and chatted for a few minutes and I invited him to join us. Not more than a day later he had sent me two memories, along with a note to say how "wonderful and cathartic" it had been to bring them back. "First Love" is one of them.  (Next post: "First Touch"!)

Enjoy! You'll likely find something of yourself in the experience Chris describes...



FIRST LOVE...
Chris Gordon Clark
Thursday, 10/13/16

The halls were empty.  1986.

It was summer, and Mr. Sunby (Carl, we called him, well out of earshot) was teaching what would be his last driver’s ed. class to 15- and 16-year-olds.  He was also my P.E. coach and a terribly funny, warm, and approachable guy, even so close to retirement.  Maybe especially so close to retirement, now that there are 30 years between experience and memory.  For Mr. Sunby, I soon became "Mr. Facetious," but he did not know the truth.  His nickname for me was so far off the mark. Painfully shy, that was the reality, despite classroom sarcasm and the need for attention...

Did she turn a corner or did I? It was next to the chemistry rooms. My locker was there one year, sophomore or junior, below all the windows and light.  Vibrant colors, a skirt or a sundress, maybe a white top, shoes. I’m sure that she was wearing shoes, but I couldn’t stop staring at her eyes. Brown eyes, black shiny hair, a senior… She was so beautiful, a near panic immediately set in.

Brown eyes. Nerves of steel? Not even close. Did she smile at me? Is that smile in my mind the real memory? I was frozen. How wildly my thoughts raced in that moment when she walked away, continuing down the empty hall!  Painfully shy myself, how could I summon the courage to say something? Anything…

What was said is completely lost in three decades. But she did stop.

She must have known how terrified I was. It was obvious! Was I cool for just a minute or two? A few weeks later I was rudderless again. She was gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BETRAYAL, PUNISHMENT

Here's another in our punishment series... this time with an added twist: the perpetrator of this misdemeanor chickens out and lets his brother take the punishment first. When he eventually confesses, it's all the worse for him. What he describes is actually one of the cruelest punishments I have come across. For the author of the story, who has recently moved into our neighborhood, it's clearly a painful memory. It also belongs, surely, in our "dad" series. Far from anger or bitterness, the story ends in genuine love and admiration for the strong, strict father who could punish this severely.


RAW WHITE RICE, ST. AUGUSTINE GRASS, AND FIRE RED ANTS
By Johnny Fotsch


At nine years old, growing up in Metairie Louisiana, my responsibilities were few. Most days were carefree, especially during summer time. When I wasn't riding bicycles, playing with friends or fishing on Lake Pontchartrain I was busy doing chores. My dad compiled a list of weekly household chores that would rotate between myself and my two younger brothers, Kevin, seven years old and Pat, five years old. 

It was the summer of 1968 and my turn in the hopper. Mow the lawn. Ouch! Our family lived at the corner of West Esplanade and Page—a busy traffic corner right across from James Madison Elementary School. Just about every neighbor drove by our house at least twice a day, so even at nine years old I knew how important it was that the lawn was mowed on a weekly basis to look manicured. My dad reminded me of this often. 

Well, I learned early on that the only grass that grew fast, stayed green and was harder than hell to mow was St. Augustine. It would take all morning to mow the front and back yards with a gasoline push-mower. I became very adept at avoiding the plethora of Red Fire Ant mounds that dotted the entire property—although on a rare occasion I would mow right over one of the "Red Devil" mounds and in turn perform the "Fire Ant Dance" for all our neighbors to see. Quite a spectacle. 

One summer morning while I was refilling the gas tank on the lawn mower, I spilled a few drops of gasoline on the milkman's Styrofoam delivery chest that sat in the carport by our kitchen door. Well, for a nine-year old boy, watching the reaction of gasoline in contact with Styrofoam is more exciting than any chemical experiment in eighth grade science class. Wow! The gasoline just shot through the Styrofoam like a science fiction laser beam. I couldn't stop myself. I just stood there letting the gasoline drip from the gas can onto the chest, until where there was once a chest there was now no more than a puddle of syrupy ooze. And as an innocent young boy, the last thing to cross my mind was to clean up the scene of the crime…

Later that day I returned home from one of my summer bicycle adventures. As I put my bicycle away in the shed in the back yard, I could overhear my dad’s baritone voice through the window of my brother Kevin's bedroom. It didn't sound good. As a matter of fact, it sounded bad. I decided it would be a good idea for me to remain outside under the window and listen further. Apparently on returning home my dad had left his car and stepped into the syrupy ooze I had left by the kitchen door earlier in the day.  My dad was angry, assuming that it was Kevin who had left the mess, and my brother Kevin was about to be the recipient of our father’s wrath.

My dad proceeded to mete out justice, and although I couldn't see the punishment I knew all too well what was happening. The sound of my dad’s huge "Golden Glove" boxing champ hand landing forcefully on the bottom of my brother’s Fruit of the Looms was unmistakable. I sat there quietly as my brother received the punishment that I deserved. When he’d finished, my dad exited the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. This was my sign to wait at least 10 minutes for calm to return before entering the house as the Golden Child.  I walked by Kevin's bedroom door and could hear his muffled whimpering.  I have to admit I was just starting to feel the pangs of guilt.

I knew I couldn't fess up to my dad. My mom was shopping for dinner so I went outside and sat on the steps right by the scene of the crime and waited for my mom to come home. As I helped her unload the car I admitted what I had done.  Her jade green eyes began to pool with tears as she admonished me for allowing my brother to take the heat for my bad deeds.

She then uttered the words I feared most. Go inside and tell your father exactly what you just told me and don't leave anything out. She then reached into her purse grabbed a tissue and her rosary beads and proceeded to pray for me. Not a good sign.

I walked slowly to my dad’s den where I found him sitting in his overstuffed leather recliner enjoying his pipe. He smiled and said "Johnny, how was your day today?”

I stood there shaking and proceeded to spill my guts. With every word, I witnessed a new shade of red cascade across my dad’s face. When I’d finished, my dad just sat there glaring at me. He was contemplating the next hour of my existence, I'm sure.  He rose slowly from his recliner, grabbed my hand and walked me to the kitchen pantry. He opened the pantry door and pointed to a large bag of raw white rice and instructed me to pick it up and follow him back to the den. We walked over to the far corner of his den, where the rug no longer covered the hardwood floor. He ordered me to pour the rice on the oak boards, which I quickly did. He then told me to strip down to my Fruit of the Looms. I did what he told me, and stood there bewildered. He pointed to the rice on the floor and said, "Kneel.” 

I slowly got down on my knees amidst the rice that was scattered across the floor. "Face the corner,” my father told me next, “and stay there until I say it’s time to get up.”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face that only angered him more, so I quickly turned to face the corner. It was quiet for the first minute or so, before I heard the drone of the television warming up.  It was a familiar sound every evening after supper. It was Wednesday, so that meant "Combat." Oh, no! “Combat” was an hour-long WWII drama. I was too scared to look over my shoulder so I kneeled and squirmed, chanting all the while to myself: "I hate you Vic Morrow.”

At the end of the show I could hear the click of the switch as the television was turned off. My dad then slowly walked to my side and asked, " Well? Will you ever let your little brother take the punishment for you again?”  

"No, never," I promised in my agony. 

"Well, then,” Dad said, “you can get up now. You'll need to go see your mom."

I staggered across the house to my parents’ bedroom, where my mom was sitting on her bed. "Come, sit by me," she said with a tender glance. Then she kissed me on the forehead. Kneeling down and reaching into her dress pocket for a pair of tweezers and a cotton ball, she began to pluck out dozens of grains of white rice from my skinny, sunburned knees.

Yes, I miss my Dad.  He was a WWII Navy Cross recipient, a Golden Gloves boxing champ, and the list goes on. Most of all I respect and admire his quiet, unassuming approach to life. He was like so many of his peers in "The Greatest Generation" who sacrificed greatly so that those of us who follow them can enjoy this wonderful cornucopia of choices that we are offered in our lives today. 

P.S. Behind every great man there is a real hero. Love you Mom!