Thursday, September 6, 2018

Mr. Gaston Is Not In Today

Yesterday was the first day of my hoped for weekly “Day of No Thing”, twenty-four hours of self-imposed solitude. With the world pushing in on all sides and society making increasingly restrictive demands, a period of time-out became necessary, even longed for. Instead of giving in to commercial culture’s seductive demands, I allowed myself the luxury of not leaving the house all day except perhaps to enjoy a cup of tea in the back yard. 

Marked more by what I did not accomplish than what I did, I found myself with blessed very little to do. No yard work, no house work, no bill paying or cooking. No phone calls, instant messages, e-mails or texts. No lunch dates, neighbor visits, television, Facebook or even answering the door. In this state of suspended world engagement, showers, shaving and dental hygiene became unnecessary.

That is not to say I descended into stinky slothfulness because I continued to make my bed and wash the food bowl. And, of course, I attended to my two feline friends because not to do so would have marked me a cruel unfeeling oaf.

I read and wrote, drew and painted, listened to music and enjoyed the excellent pastime of staring into space. Joining the cats in an afternoon siesta did not cause the least bit of guilt.                          
In this blissful way, I passed the day in contentment with a full belly and rested brain. 

But oddly, by day’s end I had not physically recharged and lay exhausted like a beached whale. One could only conclude that some type of exercise is the fuel for physical stamina. Right then I decided that next week I will change my routine and add some exercise. I will pick up my socks or perhaps walk to the mail box.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Time My Father Invented Air-Conditioning

My 2018 Captain Marvel 16 month calendar just informed me that today, June 21, is the first official day of summer. Yeah right! Those of us who live in the Sunbaked State know better. What we call summer first arrives in these parts with the buzz of Cicadas and the low hum of countless air-conditioning units. And that would be sometime in May, depending on how close you live to the Coast.

Sitting in the cool comfort of this climate controlled home, it’s hard to remember a time without the miracle of air-conditioning. But such a time indeed existed in the sweltering Florida summers of my youth.

We lived in an old rental house with few amenities and although public buildings and people of means enjoyed air-conditioning, we did not. Window-fans, wet towels and sweating were the methods we employed to make living a bit more tolerable. But sleeping in such hot and humid conditions became nigh impossible. Waking from nights of fitful sleep, I often discovered sheets and pillowcases as wet from sweat as I was. Something obviously had to be done.

That’s when my resourceful father decided to put his inventive abilities to good use. He was, after all, a drop-out from Rutgers University’s Correspondence School of Engineering. Looking around with keen eye and mind, he hit on an idea to use three things we already possessed; window-fans, water and an abundance of Spanish moss hanging from backyard trees.

As my sister and I watched in silent amusement, Dad affixed sturdy metal racks to the backs of each window-fan. Onto the racks he draped several layers of fresh Spanish moss after first removing any little bug critters lurking therein. Finally with everything in place, he let hoses trickle water down over the moss and turned on the fans.

To our amazement and perhaps also to Dad’s, the contraptions worked. Air that the fans sucked into the house was cooler by several degrees, just enough to make living more pleasant and sleeping more peaceful.

Dad’s cool invention never caught on but for a short time in 1956 his ‘air-conditioners’ were more important to us than the ones built by that other Florida inventor, John Gorrie.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Gift

Last Friday for a large part of the day I got to hang out in the Imaging Center of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. I had come with a friend who was scheduled for two MRIs. Anticipating a long wait, I made sure to bring along plenty of snacks, some illustrator pens and a well-worn sketchbook.

The waiting area filled up quickly with mostly older couples who busied themselves reading, texting, watching tv and in one case knitting. Then a young Spanish family sitting in the corner caught my eye. A thirty something husband and wife with two children, I figured they were waiting on an older relative, perhaps their abuela.

I was surprised later when an assistant called the husband in for an MRI. And shortly after that my friend got called in for her own tests.

Faced with several hours of wait time, I settled in as best I could, took out my sketchbook and began to draw. It didn’t take long before the two children took notice. They stopped chattering, put down their I-pad and began staring at me. The longer I drew the more curious they became until presently, the brother, the bolder of the two, moved to a closer chair with his sister soon following.

As I continued drawing, their curiosity could not be contained. In order to get closer, they soon took seats directly across from me. I kept drawing for a while longer until growing hungry; I closed the sketchbook and decided to check out the Center cafĂ©. The children’s smiles changed my mind and on a whim I held out the sketchbook to them.

“Would you like to see my drawings?”

“Oh yes!” answered the brother and he and his surprised sister thus began a delightful journey of discovery through a year’s worth of my sketches. When one or the other came upon a drawing they especially liked, the sketchbook was held up for their mother to see.

And with that unusual introduction all of our imposed reservations soon evaporated. The boy asked if I was an artist. Did I go to university? He told me that his mother’s brother painted pictures and he and his sister once took an art course back home in Puerto Rico.

By then I had become encouraged and started asking my own questions. What were their names? Were they visiting Florida on holiday? Had they gone to Disney World? The sister, Malaria, spoke little English so younger brother Gariel became translator for both of us.

They were refugees from Hurricane Maria and had come to Moffitt from the little town of Trenton west of Gainesville. Before that they stayed for a while in Ocala and before that Orlando. They liked Florida but were eager to go back home.

At that point, Malaria retrieved her I-pad and with new found courage began using the pad to ask questions.

“Do you draw the colors?” “Do also you paint the pictures?”

Through the genius of technology I showed this inquisitive girl my web site and videos. As image after image scrolled across the screen, Malaria and Gariel became more excited, pointing at their favorites and holding up the I-pad again for their mother to see. Now she too seemed more relaxed and after a while joined in the conversation. Finally I felt comfortable enough to ask a question that had been on my mind.

“Is your husband ok?”

She spoke at length to Gariel who then turned to me and repeated one word, “Tumor.” His mother pointed at her head and nodded when I asked, “Brain tumor?” In the most convincing voice I could muster, I told her that her husband was in the very best medical facility and not to worry, he would be fine.

The conversation trailed off after that and all of us sat in silence. When their father finished his MRI and returned, Malaria and Gariel were quick to show him my sketchbook, occasionally stopping to point at me.

As they turned the pages together, I marveled at how, for a short time, art had been able to bring strangers together. That refugee family had been through so much sadness yet I could see what a strong bond of love they had for each other. Would Malaria and Gariel still have their father’s guidance as they faced the difficult task of growing up? Would his wife have the privilege of growing old with her loved one by her side?

Their long ordeal over, the family gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. A sadness swept over me and I searched for comforting words to say before they drove back home. No words came.

As they filed past, Gariel handed me a candy cane and smiling, wished me a Merry Christmas. Malaria and their mother and father smiled and also wished me a Merry Christmas. And then they were gone.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Russell County Memories

In 1950 my grandfather passed away and for the first time in her long life, my grandmother found herself alone and needed our help in getting over the awful emptiness. So, my dad, looking for an excuse to escape summer’s heat, fired up the old Chevy and drove my mom, sister and I up to Virginia to stay with Grandmother Alice for what we thought would be a couple of months. My sister and I were sure we had been dropped down in a magical land of mist shrouded mountains, hollers and for five months of the year, snow. For us Florida flatlanders it proved to be a vacation wonderland.

‘A couple of months’ turned into a year, way too long for two young kids to lay about. Some adults decided we ought to continue our formal education and the schooling would take place at Finney School, the local seat of learning, just down the road from Grandmother’s place. Our vacation was officially over.

The faded old school was fascinating to us in its stark simplicity. Grades 1-6 were in one room and 7-12 in another one. The cavernous class rooms were heated by small fuel-oil stoves but the warmth never seemed to make it back to where I sat. With no running water or plumbing, trips to the water pump or outhouse were, especially in winter, acts of shivering courage.

With time on her hands and tired of staring at chickens, my mom signed up to be a substitute teacher in some of Russell County’s underserved areas. No teaching experience needed, just show up and manage to stay until 2 o’clock. Then one day someone didn’t show up and they asked Mom to sub at one of the most remote schools in the County, Possum Hollow School. She kept me out of school that day to go with her and I believe it was to teach me another kind of lesson.

Up a winding gravel road and wedged into a cleft sliced out of the mountain, Possum Hollow School made Finney School seem like a palace. Small, dark and cold, the school had seen much better days and I marveled that it somehow managed to stay upright. Mom and I sat alone for the longest time and she wondered out loud if students would show up at all.

But slowly children began to wander in one after the other until finally all eight desks were occupied and drawn close to the wood-burning stove. I saw no school bus or heard any cars delivering students and it dawned on me that these kids had walked all the way.

I don’t remember any of the schooling that took place but the lunchtime has stayed with me all these years later. I eagerly opened my brown paper bagged lunch and surveyed what my mother had prepared- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, an apple and a carton of milk. Just before laying into the sandwich, I glanced around to see what other students were eating.

Gathered around me were three of the saddest looking children I had ever seen. Two boys and a girl, perhaps brothers and sister, they were dressed in torn and faded clothes and in obvious need of basic hygiene. They stood staring at me, saying nothing and occasionally wiping their runny noses on tattered sleeves.

What in the world was wrong with those kids? Then I realized they were not staring at me but at my lunch. They did not have their own lunch boxes or brown paper bags and it hit me that the reason was because those three children had no lunches. Not one apple or piece of cornbread, nothing. At my young age, I had no clue why, but knew for certain I could not eat lunch while they ate nothing. I motioned for the three to come over and then divided the sandwich and apple into equal parts and gave it to them. With big smiles they wolfed down the offered food and finishing, turned and returned to their desks. I drank a carton of milk for lunch that day.

My visit to Possum Hollow School was the first time I ever witnessed poverty or even knew about poor folks. I never once thought about my grandmother or people in the valley being poor. I believed it was simply the way they lived. The gut-wrenching poverty of families like those in the hollers taught me a lesson I never forgot. Whenever possible, help a neighbor out.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Target of Life

Before computer and electronic games took over, boys of a certain age wanted only three things; a bicycle, a baseball glove or a BB gun. I was that kid and when I turned nine my father gave me the gift for which I had long pestered him- a Daisy pump-action 50 shot BB gun. His simple hand- written card read, “Aim high at the target of life.”

For the first week I practiced on tin cans and bottles until one day I was drawn across the road to the abandoned orange grove. Maybe there would be some leftover oranges I could shoot.

About thirty yards from the nearest tree I noticed a rustling in the tall weeds and soon a covey of quail emerged. I doubted I could even shoot that far and without thinking raised the gun, sighted on the first quail and fired.

To my horror I hit it. The injured bird leapt into the air but fell heavily back to earth.  In a fit of pain, it ran in circles dragging its broken wing. Frightened and unsure what to do, I ran home and told my father.

I expected to be punished and perhaps have the gun taken away. Instead my father stopped work and sat down beside me on the couch. He told me the quail would never be the same again. Unable to fly, it would be easy prey for a hawk or a cat. “You need to go back and put that bird out of its misery.”

I ran from the house filled with anger and dismay. How could he say such a thing. Pacing back and forth in the yard, it finally dawned on me, I had no other choice. My anger now replaced by a gnawing dread, I picked up the gun and walked back to the orange grove.

I prayed the quail was only dazed and had flown away. Or maybe it was already dead. Either event would have let me off the hook. But no such luck. Nearing the orange tree, I saw that it was still there, sitting quietly in the green shadows.

At my approach, the quail roused itself, ran a short distance and stopped. It could not fly, that much was clear, but it was also very much alive. If I were to get a good shot, I would have to chase the bird down. And so I did, running through the orange grove after the quail, pumping the BB gun and firing away. In any other situation, it would have been a comical sight. But there in that moment, I felt like a bumbling shameful boy.

After a half-dozen or so wild shots, I saw that some had hit home. The quail slowed considerably and once more began running in circles. This time I was able to come quite close to the injured bird. I pumped and fired again and again, now hitting it with every shot.

But the quail would not die and could only flop about on the ground. I felt utterly alone and helpless. In such an agitated state, I remembered the big game hunter’s advice, “Always aim for the head." But with the bird’s flopping around, I knew that would be impossible.

I had to find a way to hold the quail still. The poor creature, now oblivious to me, came quite close. In a rush, I knew what had to be done. Quickly I placed my foot on its quivering body, took aim and fired. And with tears streaming down my face, I fired again and again until the quail no longer moved.

Then I turned, walked out of the grove and back to the house where my father waited. Without a word, I crossed the living room to the hall closet and placed the BB gun there. I never picked it up again.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Can You Talk?

Then there’s this. You get a phone call from a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. He wants to know how you are doing but before you can even answer begins a long winded monologue about his sciatica, his lousy job, his terrible next door neighbor and something about the government.

Eventually he stops to breathe and you have a chance to talk about your cats or your art work or your hernia, but before you can finish he interrupts, “I know exactly what you’re talking about. The very same thing happened to me,” and he’s off and running again.

You realize the only way to get a word in edgewise is to talk over the friend. But he just starts talking louder and you talk louder and pretty soon the two of you are having a shouting match.

Well, that’s not working so you try the opposite approach and say nothing, just throwing in an occasional “yes” or “I know” to let him know you’re still alive. After a while even that gets tiring and you go stone cold silent.

Finally the friend recognizes that you are not agreeing with him about the high cost of his hip replacement and the jerk who cut him off on the way to Publix. Taking a concerned tone for the first time in the conversation, he asks:

“You’re not saying much today. Are you feeling ok?”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Small Talk

What did you say? I can’t understand you. You’re mumbling again.
Oh, you want breakfast. Why didn’t you say so, instead of pacing back and forth like that.
OK, you don’t have to get all pouty about it. I wish someone would wait on me like I wait on you. I’m really getting tired of it.
Yeah, I know you can’t cook. Every day you remind me of it. And another thing, could you please stop making those noises when you eat. It’s irritating.
Yes, I know about your condition. Just eat already, while I finish the laundry.
OK, once again I can’t hear you. I’m in the laundry room. What? Yes, I fluff dried your precious pillow. You know, the next time you decide to get sick, just maybe be near the toilet like everyone else. This stain is just not coming out.
No, I’m certainly not making light of your condition. I’m just saying….
Now wait a minute, what’s my mother got to do with this? Well, how could she know you’re allergic to tuna?
Why are you looking at me like that? 
Oh, so now it’s the silent treatment. Look, I’ve just about had it with you. I’m getting out of here for a while.
All right, I thought that would get your attention. Where am I going? Where do I always go Tuesday afternoon? The grocery store of course.
Oh, don’t start on that again. I did not forget you last week or the week before. OK, smart aleck, here’s the grocery list. What’s the very first item? That’s right, Kibbles! I rest my case!"

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Furry Bodhisattva

I keep having this recurring dream where I’m in a fascinating conversation with Andre, that great wisdom teacher from the movie My Dinner With Andre. In this episode we’re talking about cats and not those funny snuggly pets we see on Facebook. Andre takes a sip of champagne and leans forward.

“No, I’m talking about cats as these wise spiritual beings who have been sent back to this material dimension.”

“But why and by whom?” I interrupt.

“Well, this is what I think. There are these highly evolved Elders, who are special beings existing in the ethereal dimension and whose sole purpose is to teach us abiding and unconditional love. Their helpers on this mission are cats who are sent back here as messengers
Andre glances around and leans in closer. “But here’s the thing. I don’t think they’re as much messengers as they are mirrors.”

“Mirrors? I don’t get it."

“Don’t you see? Cats teach us by becoming mirrors for what we need to deal with in our lives. They throw-up on the kitchen floor and become a mirror for our anger. They can’t decide whether to come in or go out and become a mirror for our impatience.

Doris and I once had a beautiful rescue tabby we named Chloe. Well, Chloe had this habit of running off every time we let her outside. Hours would pass and we became very anxious. We drove all over the neighborhood, asking everyone if they had seen her. But when we returned home still anxious and now exhausted, there was Chloe waiting for us on the back steps.

It took a long time but we finally realized that Chloe’s roaming habit was a mirror for our anxiety about losing control. After that we let Chloe do what she wanted to and we learned a lesson in trust.”

“But what happened to Chloe?”

“Eventually she ran off and didn’t come back. We asked around and posted photos but somehow knew that she would not be returning. Doris said she thought Chloe’s job here was done and she had reported back to the Elders."