Gunplay

IMG_3488At the paternal family farm, there were my teetotaling great-grandparents living in their crackerbox house, where they had eked out a sort of a living.  They were German and Norwegian and Lutheran.  Everything smelled like old people and dust.  My paternal great-grandfather managed to buy a place where, during the Depression, they could shoot possums and raccoons when they got hungry.

The maternal family farm is a spanking newly remodeled place, with a freshly decorated house and three semis parked out front.  These great-grandparents were Polish and Bohemian and Catholic.  My great-grandfather had to sell his saloon because of Prohibition, but he had made enough money to buy a big piece of land, and continued, allegedly, to supplement his income with alcohol sales once he was on the farm.

This is, obviously, a lesson on the benefits of alcohol.

My other two sets of great-grandparents were not farmers.  They were, respectively, a mortician and a shop owner turned preacher.  We do not go back to John A. Gentleman Funeral Home unless someone dies.

Once part of a family moves Into Town, the farm is nostalgia for the generation who grew up there, and playtime for the generations who didn’t.  I have been put on horses to ride with great-grandpa, and I have picked up barn kittens and gotten impossibly muddy wandering in cornfields and checking out ancient, half-buried old cars.

One activity at the maternal family reunion is The Shooting of Clay Pigeons.   When I think about guns, I think about my students who have been shot, and neighbors and friends who have had fearful experiences with guns.  My only tactile experience with guns was the time I held my brother’s shotgun.  He went turkey hunting occasionally with an uncle.

When I was standing in front of the corn field and my mom’s cousin said, “You want a turn?”  I said, “Sure.”

I had already heard the safety lesson: always keep your gun pointed straight up or straight down when it’s not pointed at the target field.  Now I saw how to unlatch the gun and put yellow cartridges in the closer end, shut it, move the safety from on to off.  The first gun I shot had two triggers.  The inner one was so close to the end that I wasn’t sure how I could pull it, but my mom’s cousin told me it would go.  He was deep down calm, like his legs were a thousand pounds and his resting heart rate was excellent.

I wasn’t sure I could shoot a gun, but I’m used to pretending, so I stepped up next to my cousins and uncles, and I put the wooden part against my shoulder.  For some reason, I remembered that part was important.  On either side of me were some cousins and uncles, looking out at the power lines and six-inch high corn plants.

Someone yelled, “Pull!”  and several orange flying saucers flew up.  I tried to move the trigger, but nothing happened.  The trigger was heavy and didn’t want to do anything.  The orange discs swirled and fell.  As a group, we were not very good.  That was encouraging.

I waited, and when the next round of targets went up, I pulled my finger back harder.  Because people always talk about how loud guns are in real life, and how strong the kickback can be, I was prepared for those two experiences.  It wasn’t so loud I felt like I needed earplugs, but then, I only shot six or eight times.

It was the force required to pull the trigger.  You had to really mean it.

I went back to the table where the cartridges were sitting in little cardboard boxes, and handed my gun over to my sister.  “You can do it,” I said.

Later I got to load and shoot a different gun, a 12 instead of a 20.  A 20 caliber, you see, is a “baby gun.”  The 12 gauge had a pump on it, so I had that action star moment of “cha ching” when I loaded it.  Another one of my mom’s cousins took a turn educating me.

I realized how different they are from a gun you’d use to kill a bunch of people.  The guns I shot could fire twice, and then someone would have plenty of time to tackle you.  Yes, you could kill two people.  But then, I have driven a car for many years, and I surely could kill two people with my car.  I don’t know if I could hit a possum.

I was so scared to drive a car.  As much as I lusted after that freedom, I feared the power.  When I first got in the driver’s ed car, I thought, “Who, me?  How could I drive a car?  Does he know who I am?  I can’t drive!”

My instructor didn’t know who I was, and I had to start that car and drive.

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Gypsy

IMG_0499I always wanted to be a gypsy for Halloween.  Scarves, jewelry, long skirts.  I had never seen an actual gypsy.  It was only when I went to Rome that I encountered one, a woman prostrate on the sidewalk.

I was walking around the Vatican, from St. Peter’s square to the museum entrance.  There was some kind of mix up about the time of my tour.  My tour guide was the only person I knew in the entire continent of Europe, and to tell the truth, I didn’t really know her.  She was a friend of a friend of a friend.  I thought I had missed my tour with the only person I knew, and I walked past the gypsy lying on the sidewalk like she was a part of the ground.  It was one of the most publicly inappropriate poses I could imagine, belly and face against the concrete.  A pile of fabric over a skinny body.  That was how things were in Rome, I had been told.  Gypsies.  This is normal.  I mean, I had seen homeless people napping on sidewalks and park benches, sure, but their posture suggested mere discomfort, not some kind of otherworldly humility.

I thought I had spent time in gypsy mode.  I have not. This summer is real gypsy mode for me.  Yes, I have been away from home for weeks at a time, shut up my house and not missed my house or my cats or my paintings or books or trees.  But a gypsy is someone with no home at all.

So many places I’ve been, I thought right away, I am at home.  My hotel room in Rome was in the attic, with a thick beam at just the right height to knock me unconscious if I tried to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  My window had shutters, and I opened them at night to see pigeons flying over the city.  I felt right at home.

Almost everything I own is in neatly color-coded cardboard boxes in a 10-by-10-foot storage unit, G14.  I feel more naked than free.  I moved my self and my fish into my old bedroom at my dad’s.  The last time I lived there, I was seventeen.  Although my dad has lived in this house for over twenty-five years, and there are tons of flowers and bird feeders, and my stepmom fusses over me having enough to eat and being warm enough, and my dad and I get to frown at Pete Campbell’s disgustingness and disapprove of repetitive storylines right after the current “Mad Men” ends, it is not my home.

I always thought of the word “homeless” as describing a practical problem, but today, when I was reading the prayers at church, as we were praying for the homeless, it struck me as an emotional one.  Anyone can find a place to sleep, even a safe place with physical comfort and loving people, but a home?  That is different.  Yes, the last time I moved, I was heartbroken and discombobulated.  Moving is one of those experiences that jars you.  And yes, I only moved yesterday.

I got a slice of pizza and wine and a cappuccino at a café, and I walked around some street stalls of shoes before heading back to the Vatican Museum.  It turned out that the only person I sort of knew in Europe was wearing a purple blouse and gathering up her tour group.  My Spanish teacher friend had a son who knew someone at the Roman embassy, and these were embassy people.  I was thrilled to talk to someone who knew who I was.

Note: I am aware that the word “gypsy” and the people who are described that way may prefer to be called Romani, and that their history is complicated and that their relations with others have been troubled to say the least.  But I’m only dealing with my own, very positive view of that word, people I envisioned as mystical, beautiful, and wild, and people who didn’t keep a permanent geographic home.

Of the Available Moustaches

crab

“How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

Salvador Dali loved the Marx Brothers.  Dali wrote an outline for a surrealist film he hoped they might star in.  In Groucho, Stefan Kanfer reports that the outline went like this: “Groucho lets go of the arm and the scissors.  They go down to the street where Harpo is waiting in front of the car.  Chico says to them, ‘I have just installed indoor rain.’”

I had not thought through my modern art movements so clearly until I went to the Tate Modern.  They had three kinds of work separated clearly: absurdism, dada, surrealism.  Absurdism was cute, dada was sexy, but surrealism merely vulgar.  Dali, in his work and his person, I find icky.  Which is funny considering that one of my favorite (and quickly edited out) words in my paintbox is “melt.”

Kanler also tells the story of how the Marx brothers avoided the draft during World War I: they purchased a farm.  After failing to get up early and often enough to sustain the chickens who survived nightly rat pillaging, the family purchased a large number of guinea pigs.  Zeppo claimed that scientists were eager to buy guinea pigs for experiments.  He was wrong.  It was rabbits that the scientists wanted.  The Marxes released their guinea pigs in one late night act of liberation, flooding Illinois with guinea pigs carrying little knapsacks on sticks and whistling quietly.

How does, something, though, get in your pajamas?  For all the talk about the anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers, they field tested gags with the patience and focus of scientists.  Working on a line, Groucho tried a wider variety of options:

Among other words tried out were obnoxious, revolting, disgusting, offensive, repulsive, disagreeable, and distasteful….  Nauseating really drew the roars.  [Publicist Teet Carle] asked Groucho why that was so.  “I don’t know.  I really don’t care.  I only know the audience told us it was funny.”

I don’t know.  I really don’t care.  That is not quite it.  I don’t know.  I am interested, curious, experimenting, but yes, now that you ask, I really don’t care.

The Museum of Modern Art has installed indoor rain, just this week.  According to their website, “A field of falling water that pauses wherever a human body is detected, Rain Room offers visitors the experience of controlling the rain.”  I am looking forward to not being rained on in the indoor rain this summer.  Bring a book, they say, the line is long, waiting to walk through the not rain.

Dragons

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday is the feast of St. George.  I was, and am, a dragon.  My elementary school mascot was a dragon, and I was born in the year of the dragon.

I learned I was a dragon, in the latter sense, by reading a red Chinese food menu with gold drawings of animals, eating in a restaurant above the bowling alley.  I was pleased.

So this dragon was preventing these people from getting water, and they had to either give the dragon a sheep or a lady to distract him.  I presume he ate the sheep.  God knows what he did to the lady.  St. George showed up and killed the dragon, saving many ladies and many sheep.  The spear that St. George used was called the Ascalon, after a city in the Holy Land.

Ashkelon was a Philistine city, the hometown of famous evil giant Goliath and famous long-hair Samson.  Failure of Crusaders to officially take this city, in spite of their victory in battle, marked the end of the First Crusade.  For five hundred years, it was an Islamic city.

My parents played the Peter, Paul, and Mary version of “Puff the Magic Dragon,”which I loved, and I also had my own 45 of kids’ songs about dragons, including  “Puff,” “The Dipsy Doodle Dragon,” and “The Dragon With A Cold in His Nose.”  The record cost 79 cents.  At school, where I was a Corinth dragon, we watched filmstrips about the Lollipop Dragon and his adventures.  If western dragons were supposed to be menacing, western culture certainly failed to get that across to me.

The Phoenicians, while occupying in Ashkelon, buried a thousand dogs in a special dog cemetery.  The ancient Greeks and Romans left a lot of dead babies, possibly the children of prostitutes and their customers.  Those babies were not buried, but dumped in the gutter.

Ashkelon is now a beach town, where Israelis of mostly Russian or Ethiopian origin live.  Palestinians fire rockets at them from time to time, in the latest conflict over the treasure of waterfront land, now five thousand years old.

Photo of dragon from fabulous mini golf course.

Much of my research from here:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/israel/ashkelon-text.html

Prodigal

21“Melting is a common end-of-life scenario for many snowmen.”

We used to go to the occult section at the bookstore and look at the decks.  My standard for a “good” deck was that it was pretty.  They keep tarot cards locked up in cases in bookstores.  I guess people will steal them. Or steal cards, one at a time?  I bought a deck.  The cards had gold backs and the drawings had not a whiff of cartoon.  It was called “medieval,” I think, and they looked as mystical as I thought they should.

Death was a svelte skeleton striking a dance move atop the ocean.  There were some heads floating in the ocean.  They looked peaceful, though, like, Oh, well, these things happen.  The Star was a naked Botticelli blonde woman crouched by a stream.  The 10 of Wands showed an s-shaped path, a donkey with his masters behind him, approaching, though he can’t quite tell, robbers in the bushes.

Once I paid to have my palm read.  I was wandering around New York and it suddenly seemed like something to do.  The woman had a narrow storefront, with a curtain behind that suggested she lived there, too.  The palm reading was cheaper than the tarot.  That’s why I chose it.  I could not afford to throw away $20, but I could afford to throw away $10.  She held my hand and told me to beware of an olive-skinned man.  She asked if I wanted more of her services, and I firmly declined.  I needed train fare.

I was left with acres of years to wonder about skin tone.  Women might know about these things  since they buy makeup, but all I knew was that I did not have anything like olive skin.  Makeup told me I was pale, but not deadly pale.

A booklet came with my tarot deck, explaining how to set out the cards, what the different positions represented, what the different cards represented.  When we would sit on the floor of a dorm room or at a kitchen table, I believed that reading someone’s tarot was a nice way to get a new angle on a problem or get to know someone.

I’ve never felt myself the slightest bit intuitive.  In fact, when I’ve had a Very Bad Feeling, it comes to nothing.  More often than not, I’ve had no particular feeling about meeting someone who would become significant to me.  In the moment, I think, I can tune in, to the feeling in a room or inside myself.  For the future, though, I have nothing.

There’s a new fortune teller on Main, by the knife shop and the furniture store.  New neon is up in the storefront. At eighteen, I wanted to know my future so desperately, to know that it would be all right, like my blurry fantasies of it.  Now I don’t want to know.  I have too much power or pride in my choices and my efforts to want to know.

The human brain creates patterns where there are none, and, in most of us, is foolishly optimistic when imagining the future.  This is what the brain does.  It’s nothing personal.

One of our lessons last Sunday was the Prodigal Son.  Sermons on that lesson usually focus on the poor older brother and how he should get over being annoyed at his spoiled younger sibling.  Let’s face it: the people in church are likely to identify with the good kid.

Completely left out of the story are all the most interesting parts, that is, what the Prodigal did on his bender.  We get “he squandered his property in dissolute living,” which could be anything from lots of cocaine to lots of buttered popcorn.  According to the good brother, Prodigal has “devoured… property with prostitutes.”  I’m not sure we can take good brother at his word.

What I liked about the story this time is that no one tells the Prodigal, “You shouldn’t have done that.”  Not Dad, not even older brother, who is merely pissed that he hasn’t gotten his own party.  Sometimes people need to go Prodigal.  Maybe it’s not good.  Maybe it is.  You’re going where you’re going.  Which is not to say that I’m a fatalist, just that human nature lead to certain inevitabilities.

Sometimes you have to go too far to know where too far is.  No one can tell you that with a map or by looking at your hand.

Maps

globe

The pieces hang in museums and galleries like stars, hang there like they spontaneously appeared in their corporeal forms.  I understand much better that books do not get spat out fully formed.  For good or ill, I know that they come in blobs and spits and sprints and marathons.  I am an enthusiastic painter and drawer, and as in all my auxiliary artwork, I am sloppy and impatient and happy.

I went by today to look at a map-inspired show, and ate it up.  Paper and ink assemblages like Pollocks in 3-D, a world map of Jesus-alia, maps rendered in sophisticated embroidery and beads, ink drawings in a bracelet chain, all settled in the color of salmon (particularly useful to me, in a pink period).  The ink drawings were a little Japanese, and other map-ish drawings were clearly from Asian painting tradition.

The best part is getting to go inside a sphere that surrounds you in maps.  They are mustard-family images of places the United States has bombed, which is a downer, but I am such a fan of the installation, anything I can be inside of, crawl around in, right away I was wanting to build my own.  What I really want is my own ride, so the whole experience is controlled, and not just to make you feel like you’re flying through Hogwarts or floating through a city under pirate attack, but having some other more aesthetically or politically provocative experience.  Maybe someday.

You know those pieces, looking so nonchalant on the walls of museums, came in blurry and like grown-up teeth, pushing other things out, but then there is the miracle that they became something that works.  You know they left dirty fingers and glue smears and scraps of thread.

Review of the show:

http://www.trfineart.com/pdfs/reviews/0000/0389/Kansas_City_Star_Kemper_Map_as_Art.pdf

 

Ladies

The day after the art opening, I liked Patti Smith.  I loved Smith’s book, Just Kids.  I read most of it on the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, in between minor adventures (like meeting a guy with the most interesting accent of all time, India Indian crossed with Alabama).  My head was in crunched together, dirty 1970s New York City (dirtiness being one of my favorite things about New York, don’t get me wrong), and my bare feet dug in the sand, the water of the gulf, rather recently de-oiled, doing its usual push-pull job, and our umbrella boy (not Alabama, but he did exist) occasionally shifting the shade so that it covered me.

Why did I suddenly like Patti Smith’s music?  I have found her lyrics too sweet, and her voice too wavy.  I read her biography on Pandora, and it mentioned, along with the men she worked with, one additional bit of information: if they were her lovers.  Gee.  I didn’t care who she slept with, but you know, we can’t understand a woman unless we know if she is wholesome, frigid, or a slut.

I thought maybe I could be like Gertrude Stein (this was suggested to me).  Not, like, a bad dresser, or chunky, or a lesbian, but a bossy art boss with good taste.  I did a little research, and it turns out she grew up with money, and always had money.  So I can’t quite be that kind.  These patron types, they don’t have 40 hours of work a week to pay the bills, or, you know, “careers.”

I went back to some Stein, anyway, her wackiest writings.  I can hardly stand her insanity except that I like how it smooths my brain down because there’s nothing to snag on.  And I started The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, something I should have already read.  If I can distract myself from its two depressing notes (one: I did not live in Paris in the 1920s; two: I have no One who inspires and supports me and I couldn’t do without), then I’ll enjoy it.

I watched a documentary on a burlesque class.  It makes me angry that women have to take their clothes off to be in front of people and get attention.  I have a hard time getting past that.  I’ve always thought it was foolish to get naked in front of anyone who didn’t love you.  As a woman, your body is important to who you are, it is closer to your soul than a man’s is, and you have to protect it.  Yes, it’s women who photograph themselves and post it all over the internet so they can be seen, looking this way.  (I’ve done it myself.)  Is that troubling?  Is that cultural or natural?  Is that a disadvantage or an advantage?  Who knows.  Setting that aside for now.

At least, I have to protect my body.  It’s not modesty or shame.  Just protection.  In any bar, people making music are almost always men, and people taking their clothes off (or working scantily clad) are almost always women.  The generally thoroughly feminist members of my generation have retained this gender division.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s just that deep.

I enjoy being a girl, though.  I think women have more choices, more flexibility, at this moment in history.  I can be weak without being shamed.  I can make very little money and have that look idealistic, rather than impractical.  It hits me harder, the gender thing, when thinking about other arts.  In writing, I’ve got George Eliot, Annie Dillard, and everyone in between.  In teaching, women abound.  I only know of one woman who runs an art gallery.  I can’t think of any visual artists I love who are women.

Patti Smith used her body most like a man.  Or she didn’t play the game, or something.  Or she is just one of those people who were so rooted, so deep down rooted in where they came from, that other people don’t make her anything different.  I don’t know.  I don’t know much about her.  I just read her book and liked her music for a little while.

I had a friend take my picture on the beach, in my swimsuit. I liked the way I looked.  My brain was in good shape, although unfortunately it didn’t show in the photo.  It was so good, that spring, to undress and have your skin out in the air again.  It was nice to be looked at.  It was still snowy back home, up north.