Growing Season

The grapes are teenagers, but they look like babies.  They are the size of big peas, but a different green, a lighter, clearer green, a green that says I am not ready.

They are hard like plastic buttons, and the last part of their maturing is to just swell and swell.  Juice.  To become almost hollow, to stretch their grape skins and leave a little grape flesh, but mostly to turn the moisture of the ground into their own concoction.

When the grapes are grown up, the morning when they are real boys, the birds will know and they will envelop the vines and try to get their beaks through the netting.  The vines make grapes to attract animals who will eat and poop, but the planter of the vines grew the vines to make wine.  The whole process of farming, in fact is to squirrel away for humans what plants have learned to offer everyone.  It’s a shady business.

Five times the dancers came out and for once, the only time, in my life, I was willing to suspend my own dancing in order to watch them.  For once, I did not resent the interruption of my own fun.  First against the painted gears of a “Dancing Machine” set, then in African military dictator garb, then in gangster suits, and ending with the zombie rags of “Thriller.”  I don’t much like to watch dance, but watching Michael Jackson (or his imitator) dance entrances me.

The way he was able to hold tension in some parts of his body, and remain completely lax in others, changing his decision about where the tension was, and showing the loss of that tension and how elegant and pert that could be, the way he was able to control the pace of time with the powerful action of remaining still at a certain moment in the music, the way his body was a full expression of what he had to say, and overwhelmed his sense of alienation from his appearance, which you knew, from watching him morph, had to be a great friction, a dragging weight on his whole life.  His life was crippled by too much power.  No one could say no to him.  He had art, at least.  That is something.

Of course I was most interested in the red grapes—I am most interested in the most colorful of anything—and a few of the red grapes are about to experience veraison, as I was enlightened by the vintner.  They had sunbursts of purple, the fuzziness of lights through rain, that were not bruises but the first indication that they were growing up.  They would be bloody purple grapes, the grapes that make a terrible stain, a great dye, the juice I like and the wine I like.  (Aside: In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, they have a veraison-themed festival every year for their grapes, a sort of grape bar mitzvah.)

Every time I said, “the vineyard,” which is what it is, a place where grapes are planted and tended and harvested, it sounded Biblical to me, which is an indicator of how I am like Emily Dickinson and many writers who have been dead for a long time.  Luckily, there are still a few of my type to keep me company.

The guy dancing Michael Jackson showed all the things Jackson did with his body, the shoulder jerks, looseness and intricacy of footwork, and the people who danced with him mirror almost all the choreography, which blows it up big enough that you can see how interesting the moves are, and how Jackson (and the dancer there in his role) were the sharpest dancers of the group, the one smiled on, the one brimming over with energy and ideas, rather than just full.

The grapes and the wine I visited are treated with kindness.  Hand-trimmed, hand-sprayed for fungus, hand-examined for damage from drifting pesticide clouds in nearby parts, hand-hauled, hand-corked.  Machine squashed and machine bottled (it is the twenty-first century).

Although I have little interest in domesticating dance, that is, writing it down, creating routines, pieces, practicing them, learning them, seeing them done, the Jackson performance didn’t feel nailed down or dead.  I could see the tender attention in the carefully painted tombstones, the way not a single dancer made a single mistake, in the blast of light from their props for one number, horns plugged with bright bulbs that were waved at the audience.  Everything about that felt alive.

If only people will love what I did so much that they learn it and recreate it in a little club out by the interstate, a little nowhere in no place with no connection to anything, reenacted it with such reverence.  The same way people repeatedly play Beethoven, people replay Michael Jackson’s work.  Who knows how long it will last?

Barrels to store wine, to age it, will not become themselves unless they are filled with water.  Barrels, the Tupperware of all centuries before the last couple, were lying around in the wine-making room.  Some are full of wine, ready to be hooked to the bottling machine, and some are waiting for wine.

The vintner showed me one with a significant crack in it, a gap between the wooden ribs.  And another, which had been filled with water.  The water makes the wood swell, and the barrel seals itself.  It becomes itself by being unable to do its job, that is, leaking out everywhere for a while, and then becomes itself, absorbing enough water that the slices of its body press against each other and work together.  Then it will hold.

Death Becomes Him

The week before Michael Jackson died, I bought “Say Say Say” from iTunes.  To be honest, this was a coincidence:  I was in a cheesy-former-Beatles mood, and not on a Michael Jackson bender.  However, I have all my life felt obligated to turn Michael Jackson jokes around with, “Okay, but he made some great dance tunes.”  Sometimes I felt so obligated that I even said something aloud.  As I recall, before Michael Jackson was dead, he was a freak of nature, and it was open season on him.  He was a total joke.

Then he was dead, and I was listening to some early Jackson 5 tune I hadn’t heard before, blasting out of a lush cream Cadillac at Quik Trip.  On a lazy evening, I even watched a hastily prepared tribute on network television.  What a genius he was.  What an amazing dancer.  Fred Astaire loved him.

The Michael Jackson coverage reminded me of when I went to a funeral for a man no one liked.  It wasn’t that he was rough around the edges or grouchy.  For the whole time I knew him, he spent his life alternating between doing only two things: drinking a bottle of vodka, and sleeping it off so he could drink another.  His wife was only sometimes able to support the two of them on her salary.  They struggled from day to day, and people brought them stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods to keep them going.  Then he got cancer, and people gossiped, everyone secretly thought: good.

We went to his funeral six months later, and of course people talked about how he had turned to Jesus at the end, and what a good guy he was.   It was a strange thing to sit through, because all along, I was thinking, I wanted this guy to die.  I thought it would free him and everyone around him from a painful situation.  Then he was dead, and it seemed wrong to hate his addiction and the pain he’d caused his wife.

I have dead grandparents and living grandparents.  The dead ones, even the dead ones who were thoroughly challenging characters, at least remain static, and allow the wounds they inflicted to heal peacefully.  Live people have annoying needs like hunger and needing to get to a bathroom, and they have unbearable neurotic routines that they wrestle with acting out all day long.  Living relatives may harp at you about how you should or shouldn’t be like them, when you are not them, and might not ever be.

One of my great-grandfathers, in fact, was an undertaker by trade, and I think he would agree with me here.  He used to remark, when people expressed fear of his workplace, dead people won’t hurt you.  It’s the living ones you ought to be afraid of.  Dead people are easier to admire, easier to trust.

I imagine the next time I dance to “Billie Jean” at a wedding, no one will have to preemptively joke about what Michael Jackson was about.  We can just dance.