Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A HUNDRED MILES AN HOUR!

Here's a story of my own that has been on my mind to write. 

A HUNDRED MILES AN HOUR
By Peter Clothier

My uncle Neil was the black sheep of the family. At least so I believed from conversations picked up from my parents when I was perhaps ten years old. He was my father’s youngest brother (there were three of them) and he had left England as a young man, emigrating to what was then the British colony of Rhodesia. He was, horrors, divorced—an unheard-of scandal in my family in the late 1940s. When he came back to his native country on a visit he brought with him a tan that we, pale Englishers, could only marvel at and envy.

He was, in the eyes of my sister and myself, an impossibly handsome stranger, impeccably dressed in the fashion of those days—always informal in a light suit, white shirt, and ascot. He radiated a kind of cheerful, devil-may-care energy that set him apart from all our other aunts and uncles and inspired in us a sense of wide-eyed, disbelieving awe. His visits in the post-war period, all too rare, were great events in the respectable tedium of our family life.

One of those visits happened during term-time, when I was away at boarding school. I was at first bitterly disappointed, thinking I would miss him; but then thrilled when I was told my uncle was going to stop by and “take me out.” These were momentous occasions for all of us boys during my early schooldays, when parents or relatives would descend for a day, sometimes a whole weekend, allowing us to abscond for a few blissful hours from the dreary prison life of school. 

It was, therefore, with a sense of tingling anticipation that I awaited his arrival. And you can barely imagine how chuffed I was, in front of all my school friends, when Uncle Neil arrived like a Hollywood movie star in a bright-colored, streamlined convertible. They watched with what I was sure was envy as I climbed proudly into the front seat beside him and we headed off down the long school driveway to the main road.

I remember little of the day I spent with Uncle Neil other than the drive. We must have had lunch. I suspect he indulged me with strawberries and cream, my favorite visiting-day treat. But the drive between the chalk cliffs and the green hillsides of the Sussex Downs in a convertible speedster… well, that was memorable! 

It happened that not far from the school there was a stretch of “dual carriageway.” There was no such thing as a motorway in those days, and a dual carriageway, with its four lanes separated by a center divider, seemed the most miraculously advanced of modern highway engineering. Sensing its possibilities, my uncle put his foot down on the accelerator and the car shot forward. 

The wind blasted into my face and took my hair. I watched the needle follow the arc of the speedometer on the dashboard… sixty, seventy, eighty miles an hour. I was exhilarated. I had never in my life been driven so fast. My uncle glanced over at me with a mischievous grin. Ninety… ninety miles an hour! With a final dip on the accelerator the needle edged up slowly to a hundred… a hundred miles and hour! What a tale to tell when I got back to school! A hundred miles an hour!

And finally Uncle Neil eased his foot back on the accelerator and the car slowed gradually to his normal high rate of speed. He leaned across and patted my knee in a gesture of shared conspiracy. “That was fun,” he said, “wasn’t it?”

It was. Those were the days, of course, before the niceties of seat belts, let alone protective air bags. But then, I knew my uncle was a man who liked to live dangerously and I loved him for it. Loved? No, idolized… Since that glorious drive I have driven a hundred miles an hour myself on more than one occasion, but never with the taste of danger that thrills me even today when I think back on it.  




Think of it, a hundred miles an hour!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BAD DADS (cont'd)

Following up on our previous story, "Tumbleweeds and Crabgrass," here's another one about bad parenting. Its author asked me to withhold it for the longest time, but was perhaps emboldened when he saw that he was not alone. In the intimate, soul-searching experiences I've had in men's circles over the years (25 of them, since I first started this challenging and rewarding work,) I have heard more stories about men failing the test of fatherhood than I can count. The wounds run deep, and last often well into adulthood. There are those, I'm sure, who never do recover. There are those who spend years in therapy--not to mention a ton of money!--as a result. And there are those, of course, who simply breeze past the experienced put it all behind them. As the author of "Tumbleweeds" wrote to me after the appearance of his story: "So long ago. Forgive and forget."


FATHER MEMORIES
By Stuart Rapeport

I have a handful of primary remembrances of my father, mostly kind of sad. I have pushed them out of my consciousness for the most part, but...

After one of his big fights with my mother over some trivial thing, he thought he and I should drive off and leave her behind. I must have been around five years old. I had a shitfit and cried and cried until he drove us back home.

Then I recall a time in our old Hudson when the doors flew open and we almost fell out when the car made a right turn. It was raining real hard. This was before Ballona Creek was a concrete storm drain and the water was way above the curbs, I was doing my screaming and I recall watching the water rush by as I held onto my older sister, then the car straightened out and the door slammed shut.

I want to remember something positive, though. When I was thirteen he gave me a nice signet ring for my Bar Mitzvah. I gave it to a girl in high school and never saw her or the ring again.

While planning my sister's wedding I found him alone in the master bedroom, crying. He said he was crying because he felt bad he didn’t have the money to provide her a big wedding.

I saw him cry one other time, when his father died.

I now believe his detached parenting was result of his WW2 experiences. He did get a Purple Heart while in the Army. He fought in the South Pacific, but he never told us what he did or what happened; he refused to talk about it.

If I think hard I seem to recall going with him to the local deli sometimes on a Sunday to buy bagels. But mostly he worked on Sunday so I’m not sure how that could have happened.


Monday, April 24, 2017

TUMBLEWEEDS AND CRABGRASS

There are boyhood memories that are hard to tell. These are the dark ones, often secret. We prefer to keep them to ourselves because they can be painful to share with even those closest to us. I have found, though, that the telling of them is a kind of liberation. Once told, the memories lose their power to create reactive patterns in our lives, controlling us at some level below consciousness.

I have no way of knowing whether the following brief, poignant memory falls into the category I describe above, but its very brevity gives it the sharp edge of truth. The author has expressed the wish to remain anonymous. I took words from the first line to give the piece a title. I hope it works for him...


TUMBLEWEEDS AND CRABGRASS

This story comes from the land of tumbleweeds and crabgrass. 

I was eight years old in 1958, living in Canoga Park, out in the San Fernando Valley. My mother was the type of person who wanted a perfect dichondra lawn in the middle of the desert. Often on weekends, she would end up screaming at my father about everything from money to weeding the half-dead front lawn. 

On one such weekend, being an underage prisoner at the forced labor camp that was our home, I tried to intercede during a very loud, demoralizing argument my parents were having with the proclamation, "Why don't you just love each other?" 

My mother turned to me and said, "I don't love you!" 

Well, fat long pause, and I retreated crying, thinking 'Wow, I really am alone on this rock.' 

My father just melted into spineless goo and I remember my mother later giving me a heartfelt apology. I accepted that apology, but think I never really believed it was real. 

Just one of those moments that's etched in the memory, unable to be forgotten. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

PLUS ÇA CHANGE...

(A French adage, in case it's new to you: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... The more things change--the more it's the same old, same old...)

I was watching the 2006 documentary, The US vs. John Lennon, the other night--a wonderful reminder of both the talent and the visionary genius of a man whose loss still haunts and saddens me. It's a reminder, too, of the social upheaval of the 1960s, the opposition to the Vietnam war, the young people's rebellion against the corporate and governmental powers that be. It seemed, at the time--and I was there, in the midst of it--a moment of such hope for a planetary paradigm shift in the earnest search for a new way of living together in "peace and love." 

And I thought about our situation today, about the new spirit surging in the country in opposition to Tr*mp and Tr*mpism, the spirit that was evident in the Women's March a couple of months back; and I hope will be evident again on April 15 in the nationwide Tax Day marches demanding the release of the president's tax information. 

Is it time, finally, for us to get past the obstacles that divide us and past the tired old solutions that have proved time and again to prove nothing? I'm reading a brilliant new book that sees "destructive global competition" at the root of all that plagues our vulnerable planet and seeks to replace its pernicious effects with the power of collaboration and co-operation. It's called The Simpol Solution, by John Bunzl and Nick Duffell, and I hope it's widely read. I'll be posting about it myself when I've finished reading it. 

Meantime, here's a brief boyhood memory written by my friend, the artist Sam Erenberg (please check out his website!), reminding us how things sometimes conspire to tantalize us with the prospect of change, but end up repeating themselves time and again. The yahoos, it seems, are always with us, with their prejudice and hatred...

Here's the image of a painting by Sam that I saw last time I visited his studio:

Sam Erenberg, Study for The Battle of Los Angeles No.3
acrylic, oil on canvas
20x16in.  
2015-17


MOTORCADE
by Sam Erenberg

In 1952, Adlai Stevenson, the former Governor of Illinois, was the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States. Stevenson had the unenviable task of running against General Dwight
David Eisenhower, the WWII war hero and Republican nominee.


Our parents were liberals from Chicago and admired Stevenson, who was scheduled to give a speech in Los Angeles. He was met by his supporters at the airport, and they then formed a motorcade, a long line of cars that followed the candidtate’s limo, horns blasting.

As the line of cars slowed down at an intersection, supporters of Eisenhower on the street began to throw rocks and shout “dirty communitsts,” “traitors..."  The window shattered in the back seat of our car.

I was too young to understand the crowd’s anger, but afterwards, my parents tried to explain that Stevenson was not popular with most Americans; he was also an “intellectual,” a term often associated with Communism in many U.S. newspapers in the 1950s. 


It’s 2017 now, and not much has changed.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A QUICK CHECK-IN

I have just returned from visiting my son, who lives in Coralville, Iowa, next door to Iowa City. He has lived there almost all of his life--was born in the University hospital while I was attending the Writers' Workshop and studying for a Ph.D. back in the 1960s. It's too rare, these days, that I get to see him.

Anyway... I wanted to do this quick check-in, in part because I have been neglectful of this blog these past two or three weeks. I still have stories to publish, and will get back to them soon. But I'll confess to being somewhat discouraged by the response the blog has been getting--just a few visits a day, a handful of followers, and nary a "comment" since day one. I've used all the social networking techniques I'm aware of, but nothing has helped very much. So this is a plea to interested readers: would you be so kind as to reach out and recommend the blog to friends, whether virtual or real; or otherwise suggest ways in which the blog could be made more interesting to a wider audience. I still think the idea is a good one. I think it's a valuable exercise for us men to look back and rediscover some part of ourselves that we may have lost along the way.

Please let me hear from you, either in response to this post or via personal email (peterclothier at mac dot com) if you have any thoughts. Your feedback would be welcome.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

MISEDUCATION

by Theodore Svenningsen


It is difficult to decide which childhood memory to write about. I have memories starting from around age two. More and more memories exist from the time closer to kindergarten. By kindergarten almost every day is remembered. The first day of kindergarten is vivid. Mothers were bringing their children. I liked it there. Ronny, the boy who lived next door to us, was crying and screaming. The first thing we did in school was to draw a red ball.

I've decided to write about several incidents all having to do with early school years.

The first incident: We had just moved from New Jersey to Maine. I was in the third grade. The teacher during our spelling lesson, wrote sentences on the blackboard; each sentence used one of the words we were learning to spell that week. In New Jersey when this occurred we had to make up our own sentences using the words of that week's lesson. I did this same previous method now; I wrote my own sentences. I received a fail on the test, a red check on every sentence. I asked a fellow student why I failed. He said that I was supposed to copy the sentences from the blackboard exactly. The teacher did not even have a thought that I must have not understood what we were supposed to do. She never called me up to her desk to talk to me about the test.

The second incident takes place a year later. We had moved back to New Jersey from Maine. In school we now had multiplication. In Maine we had not had multiplication. I had no idea what was going on with all these numbers. I was too shy to approach the teacher and ask. We had a test. I simply put down a bunch of numbers not connected to anything. Of course I received a fail. The teacher didn't have any thoughts about why I was doing this and call me up to her desk. She simply failed me and moved on.

A third incident involves the writing of a story. This happened in the fifth grade which would make me ten years old at the time. We had recently read Rip van Winkle and now the assignment was to write a short story based on the idea of falling asleep and awakening many years later. We had about forty-five minutes to write our stories. In Rip van Winkle the American Revolutionary War had occurred during the years that he had slept and many things had changed because of the war. The war was important to the events in that story so I thought that I should put a war in my story. The Second World War had recently ended at the time of this incident and the idea that there could be another big war like that was in the air. I put a Third World War in my story. I thought that such a war would make sense.

After the allotted writing time, we all handed our stories to the teacher. She read each story aloud to the class. When she read mine she yelled at me saying how dare I want another world war. She said that I was getting an F. I still remember one of the boys in the class saying that he thought it was a good story and the teacher saying that my story being good had nothing to do with my grade on the story. She said I failed because I had put a war in my story and that I wanted another war. I attempted to explain, but my inability to ever speak up for myself kept me from saying anything.




Thursday, February 23, 2017

RE-LEARNING TO WALK

The Great Flood of Florence is, as they say, a hard act to follow, but I think I have something good to share in this story by Mark Chamberlain. Mark is a prominent figure in the Orange County, California art community. 

Here's Mark in an OC Register picture accompanying a review of his exhibition, "American Crazy: Life out of Balance". 
A photographer, an assemblage and installation artist, and something of a community organizer, he co-founded the BC Space gallery with his friend, the late Jerry Burchfield in 1973. It is to his great credit that it continues operating to this day--something of a record for a low-budget art venue. 

As a noted photographer, Mark uses satire...


Mark Chamberlain, "Fashion Island: Future Fossil series," 1977
Mark Chamberlain, "Lip Service at Chicken Little's Emporium: Future Fossil series," 1975


... as well as technical innovation to create striking and challenging images.


Mark Chamberlain, "Dorothy's Dream," 1988, 5' x 15' Cibachrome photogram/Tellgram

Mark's gallery specializes in exhibitions with a social conscience, championing such causes as world peace and environmental sanity. The program reflects his personal aesthetic of social responsibility, manifest in his Laguna Canyon Project and "The Tell" ...


Mark Chamberlain et al., "The Tell," 1989, 34' at high point x 363', plywood skinned sculpture with  200,000 collaged photographs
... a huge installation work designed to promote awareness and protect the vulnerable canyon from development, done in collaboration with not only Jerry Burchfield but a whole local community of like-minded environmentalists. The work achieved national attention in a Life magazine tribute in 1989:



In 2014, he received a Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award as “Artistic Visionary” from Arts Orange County.

Mark's story is one of several I have received about childhood illness, and the loving support--and the sheer, heroic guts--it took to find a way to recovery and health. It's also a moving story about the love of a mother for her son, and of how he managed to repay her devotion later in her life. Below you'll find two lovely images of the mother he writes about here. He titles his story...


RE-LEARNING TO WALK WAS HARD
by Mark Chamberlain

Learning to walk the first time was easy. But then, I was a child and don't remember the experience. Everything changed dramatically, however, when I was nine and I had to start all over again.

It was the beginning of summer vacation in 1952 when I suddenly lost the ability to use my legs. I vaguely remember being carted off to our family doctor's office where I was strapped face down on an operating table with many assistants holding me motionless while kindly Dr. Luke Faber inserted an enormous needle into my spine to extract the fluid that indicated I had contracted the dreaded Poliomyelitis disease. There was an epidemic sweeping the country at that time and I had it. Things get fuzzy after that, but the next thing I recall was our home being quarantined, and I was isolated in my parent's upstairs bedroom. 

Not satisfied with the expected prospect of crutches and braces, my mother pressured Dr. Faber, who was a long time family friend, for solutions. Luke told her of a highly controversial approach to the treatment of polio proposed by a self-trained Australian bush nurse named Elizabeth Kenny. Instead of immobilizing the affected limbs, Sister Kenny, as she ultimately became known, encouraged strenuous exercise and stretching the muscles to restore their function. Armed with this lead, my mother, whose name was also Elizabeth, proceeded to teach herself the techniques of physical therapy that might make me walk again. And so began the longest and hardest year of my life, and probably hers as well. The resolve to undertake this came from a woman who had not completed high school, since she had to go to work in her senior year to help support her family.

The daily ritual we began consisted of soaking in the hottest bath I could tolerate, immediately followed by slowly and painfully stretching my back and leg muscles. It wasn't the stretching that hurt as much as holding the furthest position we could attain, while slowly counting to ten. My mother would hold my legs flat with one arm, while I would hold her other arm as she slowly increased the length I had to stretch. I don't remember it, but my older sisters later told of my involuntary cries of pain. But I did know then, and remember still, how it pained my mom as much as it did me. It was her willpower and sharing that pain that gave me the strength to endure the torture.

After these exhausting episodes, I would spend the remaining hours of the day recuperating in my isolation ward. We did not have television in those days and, since visitors were initially prohibited, the best entertainment I had was reading, which I voraciously pursued. This allowed me to escape from the confines of bed and the interminable therapy, and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Soon I was traveling to strange worlds with Gulliver, swashbuckling with Long John Silver on Treasure Island, sharing the misery and triumphs of Oliver Twist, rafting down the Mississippi with Jim and Huckleberry, and exploring the caves of Hannibal with Tom and Becky. Mark Twain, in particular, became a favored author and through him I also visited King Arthur's Court and traded my pauper's place with the Prince. My solitary world was filled with high adventure.

This was the regimen throughout most of my fifth grade. But after nearly a year of this, my back and leg muscles were fully recovered and I was finally able to return to class with one month left in the school year, just so I would not be held back a grade. The next summer I incessantly pestered my father into buying a homemade wooden flatboat with a small outboard motor that a friend of his had for sale. My hometown Dubuque, Iowa, is on the Mississippi River and, with this magic carpet, I then became able to have my own river adventures. This is a pursuit I relish to this day, and I still maintain a houseboat on the river with the goal of documenting its entire length. So far I have covered nearly half the distance and plan to complete the journey soon.

My father passed away in 1967 and my mother lived on her own in Dubuque until 2003 when her health began to decline. After the family convened to determine her future, it was settled that she would come live in California. It was inconceivable to me for this strong willed, independent, woman be relegated to a nursing home, and it became my privilege to care for her in her final years. It gave me a great sense of completion to be able to do so.

My mother spent her last three years with me and peacefully passed away at home. She was just a month shy of her 98th birthday.

Mark Chamberlain
6/13/16





Agnes Elizabeth Hindorff Chamberlain 1909 - 2007

     


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

THE GREAT FLOOD OF FLORENCE

I have contributions from some friends from other parts of the world, among them the Italian-born artist Marco Sassone...
Here's Marco as a young man, in his native city of Florence, 1966
... who left his home country as a young man and spent many years in the United States before relocating to Canada a few years ago. From this moment in time, it seems like he made a good choice! Marco honed his skills in his home city, Florence (would that we were all so lucky!) in a line of artists descended from the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. He has enjoyed great success as a painter, adapting those traditions to the contemporary world. Much of his work addresses the very personal theme of exile--a theme that drew him to a special interest in homelessness in the streets of San Francisco, where he had a studio for 25 years.

Marco Sassone, Tim Bare Land, 2015, oil on canvas, 48x60
(One of Marco's "Homeless" series.The title is a play on words with the famous American shoe brand.)

This story is taken from a chapter in the autobiography he is now working on--with a little help from myself. A memory of the great flood of 1966 in Florence, it foreshadows the recurring preoccupation with water that appears throughout Marco's work; it might also suggest, at a deeper level, the existential insecurity that is at the root of homelessness.



THE GREAT FLOOD OF FLORENCE, 1966
by Marco Sassone

Except where otherwise indicated, images were borrowed from public domain sources


            I was woken by papa at a quarter to six in the morning. It was November 4, 1966. I looked out the window and saw a torrent of water flowing down the street below. It had been raining heavily for the last two weeks in Florence.The night before I stood on the Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge”, with my friends Bruno and Rolando, and the water level had risen so high we could almost touch it from the bridge. It was dark and eerie, yet we still could not have imagined what would be coming in the next few hours.
            Florence was still asleep, and the most frightful drama of its history was by this time unstoppable.  At four in the morning, at the threshold of the city, a monster wave unloaded by the dams of Valdarno was already cascading over into the Arno River. I couldn't tell how many hours it took for the terrifying body of water to reach and destroy Florence: its volume and power made a mockery of all normal sense of time. But perhaps even a few hours' notice would have been enough to grasp the situation, to have used that dire suspension of time to choose between an orderly removal of the more valuable treasures and the chaos of attempting to escape in a car, and being swept away to death. 
It took only two hours, we learned later, for the fury of water to crash through the banks of the river and flood the streets of Florence. An ocean of muddy water cut the city in two, isolating it from the world, and making it unreachable from either sky or ground. The first victims were already lying beneath the mud. The sick, the old, the invalids, and dozens of tenants of low income housing were screaming hopeless calls for help from the roofs of their homes. There were women crazed with fear, throwing things from their windows, imploring somebody to save their children. 
Wherever the water flooded into the basements it shattered the central heating systems in the city buildings, and a river of viscous, flammable black oil was mixed in with the mud. It would be that oily black line that would leave its mark on the walls for history to recall the level of the rising flood. It would be that foul black ooze that assaulted the masterpieces of Florentine art, forcing its way everywhere, into the heart of man as well as the finest creations of his ingenuity and knowledge. It was a punishment of humiliation and obliteration.
In Italy, November fourth is a national holiday--Festa delle Forze Armate--Armed Forces Day.  The flags of Italy that graced palaces and public buildings that day were whipped by the wind and rain, and the tragedy of Florence was already standing in the wings. But the fact that it was a holiday may have saved thousands of human lives. Had it been a usual work day, many more would have found themselves like mice in a trap. Anyone going about their daily tasks would have been caught up in the avalanche of fury that was driven along the banks of the Arno, inundating those places so familiar to everyday life.
Soon the BBC in London was issuing a desperate alarm: "The world is losing one of its gems--Florence." The network television stations in New York were broadcasting hourly news of the city’s fate. 
Meanwhile, for us, from the windows of our fourth floor apartment, it seemed as if we were doomed as the deluge continued its crescendo. Light, water and gas were out. And the news was spreading, we did not know how on that frightful night. It was as though we were all hallucinating. There were stories of people drowned like rats in the underpasses of the train station, stories of whole villages, of thousands of people submerged in the flatland suburbs that surround the city.  
           
My father’s car, a yellow ochre Citroen, was parked on the street near the main entrance to our building.  We could still see the roof of the car. On an impulse, I decided to risk a trip down the stairs armed with a thick rope, in an attempt to secure the car to the wall of the building.  Once down, I plunged into the muddy black cold water and tied the Citroen to a large iron ring on the wall that had been used in Renaissance times to tether horses.  The attempted rescue proved later to have been a futile exercise.
            
The water kept surging, ripping out trees from the riverbank and vehicles from the streets.  It felt like the water level would soon reach the sky. It did not. But it reached as high as 18 feet in the Via dei Neri, our street, forcing our neighbors from the first and second floor to move to the upper floors. We were trapped for two days.  
Florence was devastated. 



The morning of the 5th, we awoke to find that the water had retreated from the streets of the historic center, leaving the city enveloped in a repulsive quilt of mud and sludge.
            
“Where are you going?” asked my father as I put on my galoshes.
“I need to see,” I replied as I went down the stairs of the building. Once out on the street I started wading through the slimy, sticky stuff, sinking in to half way up my leg. There were men and women who had been out since sunrise, doing battle with a river that was trying to rip the city from both its past and future.




The director of the Uffizi Museum had started recovery operations immediately, organizing and moving some of the most valuable artworks to safety, including Filippo Lippi's Coronation, a Madonna by Masaccio, two works by Simone Martini from the Berenson Collection, and a painting by Giotto. Also three hundred works from the Portrait Gallery, including Botticelli's Coronation. The director of the Science Museum had begun frantically to move all of the precious instruments to the upper floors, including Edison's phonograph and numerous scientific wonders from the 1700's... 
But the fury of the Arno River was relentless. The water continued to surge, now threatening to invade the second floor of the museum. "Allora mi feci coraggio," the director recalled later: “I summoned the courage I needed and crawled out through a window on the second floor and around a cornice, reaching a window of the State Archives where I broke the glass. With the water continuing to rise, I was able to save several objects of exceptional historic value, including the binoculars of Galileo Galilei."
The friars at Santa Croce Church were terrorized. They ran into the Pazzi Chapel and pushed through to the threshold of the Cloisters, using wooden tables as floatational devices: the spectacle that greeted them there was a picture of desolation in the wake of an apocryphal deluge. Large, dark pieces of flotsam were being whipped around in the swirling whirlpools: these were the documents, the manuscripts, the papers of the National Library adjacent to the Santa Croce Church, being swept out through a bottomless door the flood had created. Beyond that door, the waters were chewing up the inestimable wealth of the library. In the ancient refectory that housed the museum, the river had smashed a wonderful golden crucifix, the gem of Cimabue that marks the passage between the medieval art and Giotto's world. This would be the greatest of the city’s artistic losses.
At the same time, the torrent of water, sludge and tree trunks hit the Baptistery in the Cathedral Square, shattering the famous Andrea Pisano door. One after the other, the bronze panels of the Doors of Paradise broke and sank beneath the mire. Fortunately their weight and their protective gates held them in place, and they would be recovered in the following days.
 I slipped and fell a few times as I wandered through an immense dead city. The water had swept everything away. There was no food available for miles around. And there was panic. Where would our next meal come from? I was the first in my family to be out on the streets, and after hours of searching I finally came up with a small package of biscotti which would be our dinner that night.
The panic lasted several days before help began to arrive, but when it finally came the response was great. Organization eventually took the place of chaos. Soldiers, officials, police - everyone who was willing to work - helped out. Students, mostly Americans from Stanford, Syracuse University and Smith College gave their precious time and labours to the city of Florence. Every day there was new light in the sky and even though there seemed to be very little progress, after two weeks we could see through to the surface of the streets.
One thing that really affected me during those first days was the media coverage devoted to the tremendous loss of art in Florence, while the loss of human life and family security was sadly neglected; even though art is my life, I felt it should take second place to human suffering. Still, once the immediate human problems were eased, we very quickly moved to the damage to the city’s art: the miracle of Florence eventually took place. We all went to work in silence, with quiet dignity, equipped with only the most primitive of tools to save the salvable...




No matter how different we might be as people, nor how quarrelsome or angry with the world, we found ourselves fraternally united in the great “Pietà” of Florence, washing and soothing the open wounds of the aching, lacerated body of a city brought to its knees.  It is this vision I recall, as both spectator and emotional participant, as the most beautiful moment of an otherwise terrible and unforgettable event; and I will always thank providence for the privilege of living it.
    In the years that followed, I carried this vision with me wherever I went.  It was an experience that left indelible memories of darkness along with a feeling of helplessness—and a new palette of colors I did not know existed...


Marco Sassone, Aftermath, 1968, oil on canvas, 71x71 inches
It was a vision that would surface unpredictably at any moment, providing the shadow that persists in my work to this day, the material for my dark series of paintings.  And often, later, it would prove a difficult paradox for my faithful collectors more accustomed to seeing my sunny landscapes.


Marco Sassone, San Francisco Marina Dusk, 1984, oil on canvas, 50x62 inches (private collection, Orange County, California)

Monday, February 13, 2017

CATHY

Oh, okay, back to sex for one more post...! This one was too good to resist. That headstrong thing of ours does tend to make its presence known at the most awkward moments, especially for one with the raging hormones of a teenager. Which of us didn't hide those magazines? But Stuart makes a good point, too: do women really understand the effect they have on us men in our secret lives? It may not be laudable but, hey, it's nature. And not really subject to our control when it, um, arises. What we do with it, though, is clearly something we can, well, take in hand. As the alcohol ads say these days, please enjoy, but use responsibly...



CATHY
by Stuart Balcomb

As a typical fifteen-year-old male, my hormones were on overload most of the time. It was that time of life when I was overly obsessed with the opposite sex. I kept girly magazines such as Pic, Tab, and Playboy under my mattress (what a stupid place to hide them from my mother!). During the summer going into my sophomore year I took a typing class at the high school, as did my good friend, Matt (my age), and his sister, Cathy (one year older and drop-dead gorgeous). The school was quite far away, but if there was enough time, sometimes we walked, and other times one of our mothers drove us if we were too late to get a bus.

The car rides to the class were usually torture for me because I was in close proximity to Cathy, and just the sight of her turned me on. It also did not help that the jostling of the car further stimulated me, and I very quickly had an erection. Painfully so. When we got to the school it was quite the effort to get out of the car without a) hurting myself and b) letting the whole world see my bulging crotch. I always made sure I carried a book or notebook to artfully hold in front of me while I went from car to school, and thankfully the erection usually subsided by the time I got to class.


During my life I’ve wondered if women really know the effect they have on us men. Sometimes I think they are oblivious, but then other times I’m sure they know exactly how we feel. In Cathy’s case, I don’t think she ever caught on. Even though she was a friend, because she was a class ahead of me, I wasn’t even on her radar.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

WOODBINES

I was at the movies yesterday and the usual pre-screening announcement about "no smoking" in the theater reminded me of this experience of my teenage years...

Smoking was strictly forbidden at my boarding school, and punishable by "six of the best", if caught. So of course any rebellious teenager worth his salt took to smoking--behind the hedges, in the woods,  in back of the chapel, wherever a safe place could be found.

It will seem strange to anyone much younger than myself, but in those days--the fifties--the seats in every cinema were conveniently provided with an ashtray affixed to the back of the seat in front of it. You could smoke to your heart's content throughout the movie presentation, without fear of recognition or discovery in the dark.

Unless I was particularly flush with pocket money and I could afford my preferred Dunhills, my usual cigarettes were the working class man's Woodbines. They were tiny, thin cigarettes, about half the size of your normal smoke, and they came in small green packages of ten, for what...? A shilling or so. They could be inhaled quickly, on a working man's break, and snuffed out with a tweak, if necessary, for relighting at a later grabbed moment.

So at every opportunity--my school gave half-holidays on Saints' Days, for example--when we were allowed off school grounds for the length of an afternoon, I would choose to go to the cinema. No matter what the movie, I would light up as soon as the lights went down and chain-smoke through the end of the performance. No matter that I'd return to school feeling sick to my stomach...

God knows what damage to heart and lungs was caused to movie-goers those days. I remember, the air was thick with tobacco smoke. It took me another forty years to begin to undo the damage to myself that I cheerfully started during those teenage years. If it hadn't been banned, would I have chosen a less destructive, and eventually less addictive path to rebellion? Who knows?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Book Review

As readers of my "Boyhood Memories" blog will know, I'm putting together a collection of intense and significant moments recollected from boyhood days, with the intention of publishing them eventually in book form. And here's a book that fell into my hands which is one long "boyhood memory." Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance looks back on a deeply disturbed childhood growing up in the
hillbilly country of the Appalachian mountains. Remarkable is the fact that he survived it, despite the odds against him, ending up at Yale Law School starting out on a successful career as an attorney.

It's not easy to read about such a painfully dysfunctional boyhood. Vance's father was an alcoholic (and later an evangelical Christian) who left the family when he was no more than a tot, and his desperately unstable mother teetered for years from one disastrous relationship to the next. Addicted to the (mostly) prescription drugs she was able to purloin as a nurse, she was unfit for motherhood and unable to provide the kind of home that any child needs. Any halfway healthy parenting the boy received came from his feisty, gun-toting grandmother, Mamaaw, and her not-quite estranged husband, Papaaw, who lived separately nearby.

And yet... the erratic, insecure hillbilly family and the community of the poverty-ridden small town in which he was raised inspired a fierce kind of loyalty in the boy, along with a shared suspicion and resentment of the world beyond its limited horizons. It offered him an identity to which he clung in a kind of stubborn, desperate bid for survival in an alien and unpredictable environment. If you're nicely brought up in the American middle class and even moderately well educated in a functional school system, this book will open your eyes to "how the other half lives"--the working class that was until recently a truly "working" class but has lately been deprived not only of work but also the dignity, the economic security and the hope that go along with decent and reliable employment.

How to escape such a culturally deprived environment? Vance joined the Marines. I myself am no fan of the "military-industrial complex", which wields far too much power in this country; but I have great respect for the men and women who have served in it. I never fail to be impressed with the stand-up quality, whether of leaders like General Colin Powell or those who served less prominently, but equally honorably in their way. I think it has to do, in part, with the whole idea of service--the experience of having to come to terms with something greater than oneself to which to pay allegiance, the understanding that one is no more than one part of a functioning whole. When you know that others depend on you, you learn to respect their needs as much as, perhaps even more than, your own.

It has also to do, surely, with simple discipline--something is that too frequently ignored in both family life and school these days. For Vance, after a life unconstrained by social convention or effective educational requirement, the Marine experience provided an invaluable lesson--one that instilled in him a kind of assurance and self-confidence he had lacked before. It was this, too, that equipped him with the persistence and determination he needed to step out of the life that otherwise awaited him--a life of ignorance and poverty--and into the experience of university and law school, where he learned more than what the books and professors had to teach him; he learned how to expect, and demand for himself, a functional life, a stable relationship, and a professional ladder to success. He grew a spine.

Vance's book offers a valuable insight into the rage and resentments that fuel today's political revolt amongst what used to be the working class. He learned to despise the dependency and seemingly willful ignorance of those unable--and eventually unwilling--to find work, even as he identified with them. He learned what threatened to develop, for him too, into a destructive self-hatred, resentment, and eagerness to cast blame on a system and a historical trope that left his family and community feeling neglected, unheard, and betrayed. For those of us mystified and dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump, this is a needed education.

Monday, February 6, 2017

LADY

Enough with boyhood memories of love and sex--for the time being at least. (I'd still like to get more of your stories!) 

I thought it might be a good idea to get back to fathers for a while. Good dads, bad dads. Absent dads, doting dads. Fearsome dads, loving dads... We all had them. Dads, I mean. Some good, some not so good. For most of us, they had an enormous influence on our lives, whether as role models or, in some cases, the cause of great pain or aversion. I've heard some horror stories, some inspiring stories, some stories of lasting love or lasting anger. 

If you have a father story to add to my collection, I'd love to receive it. 

For the moment, here's one I found particularly moving. It's a complex story, combining not only the memory of a strong father brought to tears, but also a boy's relationship to his dog--and the larger theme of death. The feeling of guilt, too, plays a role... My thanks to Stuart Balcomb, the musician and composer, for submitting it.



LADY
by Stuart Balcomb

My parents bought a Doberman Pinscher puppy when I was in first grade. It was the first family dog for my younger sister and me, so “Lady” was quite a big deal for both of us. My dad had her ears clipped and tail bobbed (as was the custom) and took her to obedience school. We lived in a rural area in the North Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico, amidst pastureland next to the Rio Grande, which was the perfect place to have a dog.

Lady was a sweetheart, and we loved to romp with her whenever we could. As she grew to a full-size, majestic Doberman, she became a fierce protector of us all. She kept her sweet disposition, but woe to anyone who dared enter the yard unannounced.

A fine Doberman (not "Lady")
The area where we lived became an incorporated village, and my father served as sheriff and fire chief. I once rode shotgun in the firetruck to a brushfire in a field, and was with dad when he stopped someone for a broken tail light. He sometimes patrolled the Village on foot, with Lady on a leash, so one can imagine the air of command that a black Doberman added to the authority of a Smith & Wesson and a badge.

One day my father was standing on the patio, looking across the large field that separated us from the main road. He saw a car speed by, and then suddenly swerve as it disappeared from view behind trees at the edge of the property. Something told him that all was not right. He ordered me to stay put and took off running down the long driveway to the road. After awhile my father came into view, carrying Lady’s lifeless body upside down by her legs. I didn't know what to think, then realized that she had been hit by the car. I became frightened, and the sight of blood running from her nose was horrifying to me—it was my first experience with death. And what made it worse was my father crying as he carried his dog. I had never, nor have since, seen my father cry. Those two new elements, death and parental grief, made for a very terrifying moment. 

I cannot remember if my father blamed me for leaving the gate open. That part of my memory is gone, but something deep inside thinks maybe he did. It most certainly could have been me. I really don’t know, but that didn’t lessen the tremendous guilt I felt.