18 January 2015

On the subject of RACE RELATIONS

I met my friend Cindy, who is a stock broker, on the subway riding to work in Boston. She married Steve along the way who, in conversation one night, I ascertained had attended the same high school as me in Staten Island. I was surprised when he inquired about racial conflict while I was there. He indicated there had been fights and riots when he attended before me, he graduated around 1973, and later in the early 80s. As I recall, there was a gang of delinquents that patrolled the front entrance of the school, there was a rumored brisk trade in prescription medication, but once I discovered a back way into the buildings that was open every morning, things went relatively smoothly for me.

One of the hallmarks of my time at Susan E. Wagner High School was the great diversity of friends I had, which I did not appreciate at the time. My two best friends were a Jewish boy named Richard, who was musically talented, and a hispanic lad with the sonorous name of Hector Vizoso. Hector was a gentle and patient soul, one of the most understanding people I ever knew, which is a great quality for a friend to have. 

My parents were bigots; the Finnish were the master race if you were wondering. Other peoples were troubled in a variety of ways, and the fact that my father was drunk pretty much every day, out of work and occasionally prompted the police to be summoned seemed to have little bearing on this assessment. I laughed out loud when my mother expressed relief when I was no longer dating one Amy F. "Her family seemed very troubled," she announced. 

Equally without irony, my father made much of the stupidity of others, particularly persons of color, but he had sufficiently demonstrated what a terrific mensa he was on more than enough occasions that I knew not to invest anything in his opinion. Here’s an example of a clever thing he did one night: picked a fight with a New York City bus. The bus won.

I had black acquaintances at school I was friendly with - twins Daryl and David, and another boy named David who I suspect found me foolish, but amusing. I also have very fond memories of a cool hispanic boy named Jesus, whom I formed a friendship with in homeroom based on drawing and a liking of kung fu.

My mother drove to work with Mrs. Lee, the mother of one of my more agreeable classmates, Albert. His father was a sharp librarian, I looked forward to saying hello to him at the New Dorp Branch of the New York Public Library, and he had a high achieving sister, named Pearl. Much was made by my mother of the apparent faux pas that had occurred with the naming of Pearl, violating the stringent rule that forbade a family to choose a first name of a child ending with the same letter that began their last name, forcing those who speak at a pronounced clip to call the young woman Pearly, to everyone’s deep embarrassment. At the time I wondered why stiff fines and penalties had not been assessed, and counselors dispatched to speak to the family, but I think it was the recession and New York City was at the time strapped for funds, and had no choice but to let such egregious offenses slip. I think for the reason they commuted together, no opinion was put forth about the Chinese people as a whole.

The urban educational climate was challenging, but I benefitted from having some tough friends. One boy I lunched with became a weightlifter and, although he was as mild and nerdy as myself, his biceps kept trouble away. I also befriended a distant kid named Mike over an article about Bob Seger in a music magazine. Mike was lanky, sullen and strong, projecting an aura of trouble, the kind of individual people for the most part left alone. I was initially wary when he asked me about the magazine, but he was genuinely interested. In retrospect I could guess Mike may have come from a difficult  home, he hinted as much, an opening in his armor I would only recognize years later as an incredible declaration of trust, and had learning disabilities, as witnessed by the way he was mostly ignored in class. The kind of kid at the time no one much bothered with. But he took a liking to me and I liked him, talking about music, and I benefitted because of my association with him.

I don’t think it much occurred to me to think of my friends in terms of their race, as it seemed everyone in school in New York came from some pronounced ethnic group, so it didn’t seem particularly unique. I didn't encounter racism until I moved to rural Pennsylvania in the middle of my junior year of high school, where my mother assumed I would benefit from the country air and clean living. What really happened was I was removed from the good influence of a diverse core of well behaved supportive friends, and dropped into an unfriendly homogeneous crowd who treated me with suspicion. In my first week of classes, when I was quizzed upon what life was like in the city, I described my friends. The boy who was interviewing me narrowed his gaze and inquired incredulously, in low tones, head dropping between his shoulders, "You mean to tell me you were friends with these people?” Bring on the fresh air.

As history has well shown, I was not wise as a youth. I made the mistake of repeating a racial epitaph my mother had uttered about my friend Rich to him. At the time I didn’t realize how seriously it could be taken. Rich repeated it to his mother, and she expressed that he shouldn’t hang around with me anymore. Rich said, “Jon’s mother said that. Jon didn’t,” and he remained my friend, demonstrating an emotional maturity I should have envied. I did, only much later. 

In college, I was telling a racial joke in keg line at a party, something I would do to deal with what I felt were awkward social situations. A man walked up and embarrassed me, and made me finish the joke. I did but felt deeply ashamed, rightly so. I vowed on the spot I would no longer tell racial jokes, and I have kept this promise.

There are wise and ignorant people all over the world and both qualities, as far as I can tell, seem to transcend race and gender.

This blog is a joint project with a number of other writers. Please be generous and read the other artists in this shared blog who share their take on the glories of travel:

William Pora  http://williampora.com
James McPherson  http://jalmcpherson.com/


13 December 2014

Has travel changed me - YOU DECIDE.

Travel for the preponderance of my early life consisted solely of visiting my sister, in and out of college, or on two rare occasions my grandfather, who had retired to Lake Worth, Florida. These were all car trips and fraught with occasional danger, as the beginning of each trip was usually typified by some low grade spy craft, attempting to keep our departure secret from my alcoholic father. When she was a young woman, my sister would walk to the 7 Eleven with me and we would get Slurpees in super hero cups, which I enjoyed.

I did not fly in an airplane until I was 24. It seemed significant when it finally happened. On board, on a work retreat that sent me to the Ozarks in July (twice! the company I worked for had some strange notions about fun), I was at once fatalistic about air travel, and continue to be so. If something goes wrong when I'm in the jet, there wont be much I can do about it. I am certainly capable of being anxious, but seem to not be about air travel. Why fatalism sometimes works for me, I cannot say.

My first independent trip to Europe commenced the day before October 28, 1992. This date is etched in my memory because a few months before announcements started popping up all around Boston, plastered in the subway and on telephone poles, indicating the world was to end on October 28, 1992. To this day I'm surprised it didn't, as fortune has a dark comic way of working, but happily I made it to Amsterdam, no problema. So far, to my knowledge, the world has not ended. Right?

I picked Amsterdam for the particular reason I wanted my first international destination, the place I chose for and by myself, to be the AnneFrankHuis, and it was. Anna had figured prominently in my life in the decade prior to this, and I sometimes indulge in the symbolic. Jet lagged and worn by months of preparation, and the raw emotion of finally getting someplace I long dreamed of, I burst into tears in the bookstore.

I can be foolhardy and reckless, but I like to be thoroughly prepared for those moments. My first trip abroad was no exception. I studied for months to insure I could converse in basic Dutch and make change across several currencies (Dutch money was beautiful; I miss Dutch money). I was tense all through Amsterdam, the Hague, several frigid hours in a desolate shelter on the Dutch coast waiting for a ferry terminal to open on a Sunday night, and then London. I had made the mistake of visiting Amsterdam’s red light district early on my trip, which thoroughly discouraged and depressed me. This is a common mistake I make: I think an excursion into the dark side of humanity will be novel and informative, perhaps uplifting, forgetting that suffering will be on view, often in ways I am grateful I could not imagine.

I was surprised to find myself lonely and depressed on this fabulous vacation. At this moment on my ferry journey I was befriended, not entirely by choice,  by an intrusive nattering student from Antioch College, bicycling his way across the continent. His efforts to shoehorn himself into my vacation were so thorough, and so fully annoying, that I have rarely ever been lonely again while traveling. 

This whole adventure took 10 days. One important travel skill I learned was: it is foolish to strictly scheduled time. The two hours I allotted for the British Museum took me all day. I also comprehended, but chose to ignore for a while, the folly of looking at scads of artwork on consecutive days without a break. 

In Amsterdam I developed immediately my longstanding delight in foreign grocery shopping. Particularly cookies, cakes and candy. On my last day in London I was walking the autumn night in Pimlico, wind whipping leaves pleasingly about me, and realized I had just greatly enjoyed myself. All my worry was unfounded. I could do that again.

I have since been to the AnneFrankHuis three times. Each visit had been rewarding, but like some places I have visited repeatedly, I found it increasingly hard to extract greater meaning. After an early life of the same dark things over and over, I like seeing different things. 

I recollect here now what experiences have moved me most on vacation: 

At least once on every trip to Europe I try to reflect for a moment I am halfway around the world from where I live. How cool is that?

In a temporary exhibit space for the closed Albertina over an auto part supply store in Vienna, I gave an impromptu lecture to two Canadian tourists and an elderly woman docent on printmaking techniques. The charming docent then linked her arm in mine an asked me to walk her thru the exhibit of famous Viennese and tell her how each image was made. I left to find an ATM for cash to buy the catalogue, as credit cards were not accepted, and realized she and I should have our photo taken together as a keepsake. When I returned to the gallery she was gone, and no one could tell me who she was.

On my second trip to Amsterdam I met a retired college professor named Frank, and walked him home every night. He gave me his email address when I left, but when I got home I could not read his handwriting. I tried every permutation I could muster from what he gave me, but never deciphered it. When I returned to Amsterdam a decade later, no one remembered or knew him. I still think of Frank.

Riding a bicycle and having a Belgium waffle in a Christmas fair in Bruges. I like Bruges. I can spend any amount of time there happily.

The van Eyck self portrait in the National Gallery in London has held up to repeated visits, like a mentor I like to check in with. On one vacation, during a 7 hour layover at Heathrow, I shot into town to see Jan and buy cookies, feeling very cosmopolitan.


Holding hands with the girl I loved from high school in the Washington National Gallery. 

Discovering one of my favorite things in the world, KinderSurprise, in Vienna, and my favorite cookie, Jammie Dodgers, and fresh dairy milk in a London Safeway.

On three whole separate occasions during vacations I have felt I needed to be nowhere and had to do nothing, which I surmise is that relaxation everyone talks so much about. They were:

On a bus in San Francisco, reading Diane DiPrima’s Memoirs of a Beatnik, on my way to the arcade museum, at that time on the waterfront.

Port Sunlight, Merseyside, easily reached by subway from Liverpool, home to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. This town is ridiculously magical, as long as you don’t venture too far beyond it’s borders. Frequently devoid of inhabitants when I have visited, it is like I dreamed it. Once, the staff of the museum brought me a small cup of tea as I sat sketching a statue. Have the apple cake.

Hiking the Dark Peak in England’s Peak District, carelessly to Dire Straits On Every Street, across peat bogs inset with stepping stones. Then I had to walk back to catch my train.

This blog is a joint project with a number of other writers. Please be generous and read the other artists in this shared blog who share their take on the glories of travel:

William Pora  http://williampora.com
James McPherson  http://jalmcpherson.com/

Jenna Sauber  http://jennasauber.com/

16 November 2014

IN WHICH I do not have a pet.

I don’t have a pet. I had tropical fish once, when I was about eleven. I didn’t want fish, and didn’t ask for fish, but I think it was deemed fish would be an appropriate consolation pet. I wanted a dog, but according to my mother, like piano lessons and little league, my siblings before me had dropped the ball with the whole pet care thing. I now believe this to be a questionable appraisal, as my parents did more than their fair share of ball dropping, but either way, I didn’t get a dog. Or piano lessons. 

I wanted a dog like Snoopy, who could look after himself and perhaps pretend to be a World War I flying ace. Or Lassie. Lassie was smart and heroic, independent, ready for adventure, affectionate and loyal, and deeply sympathetic. Lassie could rescue you if you were in danger, run simple errands swiftly and accurately, and not shed. Jeez Louise, who wouldn’t want Lassie?

For two reasons I don’t have a pet today. One is that I don’t want to get up every morning at 6 AM and go for a walk. I don’t like getting up at 6 AM for much, and taking a walk in snow or rain would be among my least favorite activities. I know some days would be sunny, but that really doesn’t sway me. The other reason: I have a hard enough time looking after myself.

I have cared for pets, and am fully capable of doing so. Good friends of mine have pups, and I have looked after them. Loved them in fact, and they me. Abby and Brutus have been better friends than some people friends I’ve had. 

Abby used to live next door to me, and I would watch her on the occasional weekend. We would walk at night and have long conversations. Abby was a Chesapeake retriever, a pretty caramel color, and had a variety of moods, much like people do. One time I had a friend visiting who refused to pet Abby, and Abby, her feelings hurt, gave me the cold shoulder for about a week. Another time she cut her paw and was bandaged. Her master was fair but stern, while I offered comfort and sympathy, mostly in the form of petting. Abby was quick to want to come home with me on that day.

Brutus is my friend Kevin’s chocolate Lab. Brutus is not as savvy as Abby was, but he is deeply affectionate and has a big heart, and that goes a long way. Brutus has done a lot to sway the animal vote in my favor. Prior to Brutus taking a shine to me, most dogs looked at me with a deep appreciation of the fact I am made mostly of meat. 

I have a plant. This is a big step for me, as I have a long and sordid history of killing plants. Hardy plants that can thrive under the most adverse conditions have withered at my touch. 

I had a girlfriend once who insisted upon giving me a plant. “This is our child,” she announced. 

“Our child will die,” I said. 

“If this was our child, you would care for it.” “That’s true,” I replied, “because a child would say things like ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m cold.’ The plant will say nothing, and I will forget about it and it will die.” The plant was forgotten, soon died, and the girl and I broke up.

So why do I have a plant now, you ask? Because someone I genuinely adore beyond words gave her to me, so I strive vainly to keep her alive. Her name is Lily (as she is a lily) and I water her regularly, put her in a big pot with, like, nourishing organic soil which I bought in a store, and sunlight, encourage her verbally to grow and not give up in the cold harsh face of reality, and all that. She has stopped flowering, because I believe her to be unhappy having had her lot cast with the careless artist person who kills plants, and she misses her rightful owner. But here we are, Lily and me, thrown together by fate. 

I got a small laurel plant to keep Lily company, and because I occasionally get a crazy hair and think I can make plants grow. Laurel is the attribute of the Muses, and I think if I can get a substantial amount to grow, this will be useful to me in an art project. If I don’t kill it. Ha ha.

I may get a dog someday, when I’m old perhaps, for companionship and conversation.

This blog is a joint project with a number of other writers. Please be generous and read the other artists in this shared blog who may actually talk about having a pet:

William Pora  http://williampora.com
James McPherson  http://jalmcpherson.com/
Jenna Sauber  http://jennasauber.com/


22 October 2014

IN WHICH I CONTINUE to dwell briefly on the subject of beauty - Part 2

There are specific moments that have resonated with me seeing what I found to be compelling works of art for the first time. 

Rounding a corner in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I saw the Vermeer study of a young girl. The room fell away, and there was just me and that smiling, beatific presence. I didn’t plan to respond to the work in this way. I knew and admired Vermeer paintings by the time I saw this one. There are arguably much better paintings by the man, this one has some awkward passages, but it seems to me, based on nothing but my instincts and what is communicated on the panel, that the subject was greatly loved by the artist.

I was equally stunned by a 19th century funerary sculpture in the massive Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. I was hunting down David’s Death of Marat and was a bit surprised to find a kneeling teenaged girl in the room. Approaching her, I thought perhaps I was viewing some kind of performance piece, and she was costumed in marble dust or nylon drape. Before her I started when she seemed to breathe, but I saw that her fingers were joined together with bits of marble, and she could in no way be alive, although she had for a few compelling moments fooled me.

The technical excellence and sedate appraisal of who we suppose is Mrs. Rogier van der Weyden in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin likewise took me by surprise. Long tired of museum going and reading labels, years  ago I adopted the strategy of going at whatever pace and way I wished, looking for images that I found compelling, noting and then visiting them again. Mrs.van der W is a tiny presence in the room, but she keeps her eye on you. She is very matter of fact, neither happy nor sad, apple cheeked and very Flemish. I’ve seen lots of living girls and women like her. At the time she was made, it was an unusual project for a fellow to record his pretty wife in paints. I imagine Rogier was inspired to do this by his near contemporary, the great Jan van Eyck, who had done likewise. 

Art can only approximate and be approximated in reproduction, just like a person is. An analogy is: say you have a picture of a person you love. Compare the image to the actual person. You can capture salient points, color, contour, form, perhaps even a little content, but really, does that compare to the presence of the person? Of course not. But sometimes the picture is all we have left, and that has to be satisfactory. 

Art seems to me to function in the same way. A work can be excellent in many ways, maybe all ways if we are talented and hard working, and our subject cooperative, but is the merest estimation of the subject. I don’t mean in any way to diminish art by saying this. That merest estimation is high achievement, and under the best circumstances stands as evidence to one another of our shared, or unshared for that matter if you don’t get it, experiences. 

I wonder aloud: how do you record how you love someone with paint, or words, or stone or clay, or with a camera? To me this is the wildest abstraction of all, far crazier than anything any painter could come up with, those paintings that we are fond of saying “My four year old can paint better than that.” This is also possibly true. 4 year olds can often paint really well, because they haven’t really learned anything bad yet. At least I hope not.

I know by now I respond to the merely personal in art, to portraits in particular it seems. Not by choice. The works that have moved me the most are by no other estimation apparently great works, although I would argue that the van der Weyden portrait is a masterpiece. But they are great to me. 
There is this whole thing occurring in nature and art called the golden ratio, or mean, or proportion. This numerical business occurs super often; the proportions of the nautilus shell cut in half is the example I always remember, since it stuck in my mind as a bit unfortunate for the nautilus. 
Two quantities are said to be in the golden ratio if their respective ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. You can write an equation if you are so inclined, and if you follow this little maths problem out geometrically you get a rectangle, one that artists and architects have been bandying about for centuries as aesthetically pleasing.
My trouble has been I have always found this rectangle a bit awkward. Either tall or on its side it always appears to me, how can I say this gently, wrong. Stubby? Ungainly. Inelegant? 

I prefer the oblong rectangle of the widescreen cinema, at a ratio of 2.35:1, or better yet Cinemascope at 3:1, big pictures that always appealed to me but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Actually, anything up to and past those measures I find appealing. The longer the rectangle the better, and I say swell, that’s a nice picture. I also like the square. The square always works, and puts me at ease. I ask you, who could find fault with the square?

I’m never sure what to make of my lack of enchantment with the perfect, other than beauty is not always formulaic. I have found beauty is not always pretty, not always neat and regular, or clean. Beauty certainly doesn’t need makeup. And I suppose I’m showing my hand here, and need to recognize beauty is not always female, or people for that matter.

I've never been interested in conventional beauty, because I realize the things we are taught to consider pretty are often false. I don’t find them attractive.

I have had personal experiences that have impacted me as profoundly as these art experiences: realizing across a high school classroom that a young woman I had been looking at for months, often critically, was remarkably beautiful in a way no other girl before, or since for that matter, had been. I felt startled and foolish. Being kissed by a girl named Kelly in Washington, PA. Approaching the Lady Lever Art Gallery on a sunny Merseyside morning as the rain cleared, a place I had regarded as foreign, distant and mythical my whole life, suddenly reachable. Discovering I had been eating inattentively for several minutes off the plate of a child I loved and was caring for, a habit I had, until that moment, found unpleasant in others. Comforting my crying grandniece as she turned her head on my shoulder and sighed, stealing my heart forever.

What is meaningful to me is that among these experiences, art counted.

The things I have found most beautiful in the world I have to admit were not always immediately evident to me, and I came to my appreciation of them gradually. When I look back on this, it makes me feel a little dumb. I am also amazed at the consistency of that truly beautiful. 


I believe real beauty has flaws. Perfection, just like like and beauty, is subjective. The nearest I can come to accept as perfection is maybe flawless: works that appears to me without error, no cracks we can wedge into and begin chipping away at a things’ merit. Still, that alone doesn’t make them beautiful, just appealing. I’ve met perfectionists along the way, who have always struck me as people who simply want things done their way, with enough conceit to assume that should suit the world.

30 August 2014

In which I dwell briefly on the SUBJECT OF BEAUTY - Part 1

You may be surprised to learn that I possess advanced degree credits in the writing of poetry, one of the many big money fields that have enticed me in my adult life. Although I am pretty sure I could still whip out a perfectly decent villanelle or some kick ass lines of iambic pentameter, no problema, I have not pursued that particular Muse for a long time, leaving the limelight of the poetry reading behind for fame and fortune elsewhere.

In the course of one of these courses, I made the rookie error of using the word beautiful to describe something. The instructor, an affable gent in corduroy jacket with reinforced leather elbows, instructed me, "Do not use the word beautiful to describe something. It is meaningless." I saw his point eventually, that a word, in this case beautiful, can be so used and abused over a long period of time that culture pretty much sucks all the fun and meaning out of it, and just my luck to come smack dab at the end of the epoch where beauty is ready for the verbal equivalent of protective social services, were there such a thing for words, as perhaps there should be.

However, as an artist, there is still the very quiet recurrent suggestion every now and again that art has something to do with beauty, much like the little voice of hope that comes out of Pandora's box at the end of that unfortunate story. And I feel qualified to discuss the subject as an artist, I have the degree to prove it, and as a person who recently completed reading a dense book called The History of Beauty.

Throughout our brief history as people we have measured beauty by a variety of criteria, which seem to suit the particulars of the time. For example, I've heard the expression Rubenesque bandied about, and you perhaps know this as a descriptor for the chubby Flemish woman of the type favored in 17th century painting, particularly by Peter Paul Rubens. Chubby shortly thereafter fell out of favor and by, say, 1965 we liked our figures a bit more gaunt. I'm thinking of Twiggy here.

Historically true beauty was, in theory at least, judged a bit more subtlety, and leveled by such crushing criteria as virtue, behavior, carriage and comport. Actions and deeds, or comparative lack thereof, have at times been taken into consideration. Often enough one's thoughts might factor, were those thoughts appropriately charitable, respectful and selfless. At certain periods in our past, more often than we should readily admit to lest we embarrass ourselves, it was pretty much necessary to do nothing to be pretty, in fact this was encouraged. Sometimes beauty should embrace certain moral or religious criteria, unless of course it doesn't, which is fine too.

In short, given enough time, and the scope of man, at one time or another everything pretty much qualified as beautiful, even the ugly, and the evil, to someone. The simple, the complex, the sublime (very much so the sublime), the surface, the melodic, the dissonant, the natural, the man made, the silence, the sound and the fury, all could be construed as pretty. 

Now, I personally don't mind discordant notes in my orchestral appreciation, nor does a close buddy of mine who I occasionally accompany to the symphony, but his wife can't abide them. My life has had a serious, distinct and complex soundtrack since the summer of 1974, but I am still surprised and a bit incredulous when I encounter the individual who has no use or appreciation for music. As I have previously stated, I have no problem spending a whole day wandering one or several museums, but I do appreciate that this kind of outing is not to everyone’s liking.

I think I'm somewhat particular and discerning in my tastes, but I admit to being a bit stymied by a good portion of what I see in museums. I appreciate some of it is there for a historical or phenomenological value, not because it necessarily beautiful, pretty, well crafted - or good, for that matter. The beautiful in art is sometimes equated with the price tag, or is that fashion? I get confused.  I have mixed feelings about this. Money is a very particular kind of value. I understand art should be protected and preserved, and is in this sense priceless. But at some point if you’re selling or buying art, you have to part with some amount of money. I’m not sure any painting is worth kabillions of dollars, or euros. I make my paintings to be robust and lasting, in part because I know how careless and rough I can be, and how unkind fate is going to be with them when I’m gone, but even the biggest, toughest works I make strike me as delicate and small when they venture out into the world. And they are; this is why we don’t touch them in the museum. I get an uncomfortable feeling when I think of so much money being spent on something so dainty.

Bear with me, I'm getting to the point. Because I like music, and because I do especially seem attracted to two dimensional images in particular, this is not to say I like all music, and all pictures. One of my models had what I considered to be the most perfect arms ever. I drew them a bunch of times and, as fate would have it, some of these drawings have been distributed to the world at large. Whilst hanging in a chums’ home, this image, let me stress: approaching the platonic form of the female arm as nearly as possible, was in the recent past criticized for looking flabby.


I often make the case, when I am asked to defend something I like, that like is subjective and not defensible intellectually. I wonder now in trying to chart this little dissertation on beauty, whether beauty, like favor, is subjective.

06 October 2012

IN WHICH I STUDY the figure at an early age



As a youth, I was often left alone for lengthy periods of time in a pretty big house. This provided me ample opportunity to explore. Despite our often dire circumstances, at some point my father had actually worked and the family had thrived economically, so the house was vast and crammed full of stuff. My brothers and sister had stacks and stacks of board games, toys (broken and working), great towers of comic books, pulpy paperback novels, some unusual clothes, like two satin shirts from when my brother was a boy magician, and other assorted baubles of great interest. My sister’s possessions were generally more pristine than my brothers’, and more neatly arranged, but everybody kept things in good repair for the most part. My sister had a tall doll (tall for a doll) named, I think, Cathy who was rumored to walk, although I never actually witnessed this. In addition, my father had a well stocked workshop in the basement, as he was, as legend had it, a skilled carpenter.

So when I grew bored with my usual fare, which was often, I ventured forth to sneak around and dig around everyone else’s stuff. One fine day in a low drawer I discovered a stack of periodicals of great interest, devoted entirely to the subject of naked ladies.

I had seen these periodicals, there was a dark news vendor in Port Richmond that did a shockingly open commerce in them, and I was acquainted with the subject of naked ladies from conversation with school chums, neighbors and my highly personal study of the subject of girls. I had devoted lengthy portions of every school day since kindergarten in serial wild adoration of some member of my class (first Linda, Sandra, who could be inexplicably mean, quiet Bernadette, Wendy Witter), or the occasional student teacher. At this particular period in history, I believe I was keen on one of the Lisas Levine (there were two) who sat catty-corner to me in class. I was slightly taller, so I was at a marginally bigger desk, which provided me an advantage to gaze down lovingly on my beloved, who, although cordial, was for the most part oblivious to my presence.

In indiscrete conversation with school friend Chuck I happened to mention my magazine discovery. In a remarkable coincidence, Chuck likewise had a robust interest in the subject of naked ladies, and gently inquired if there was a way he could likewise benefit from the study of these periodicals. I liked Chuck, and wanted to be accommodating, but I thought I would be hard pressed to negotiate an entire magazine away from its resting place, much less get it into school unobserved, but after further entreaties that grew a little anxious on Chuck’s part, I thought I might be able to secure a single image from an issue for his review. Chuck found this solution satisfactory, and when I got home from school I set to work.

I did a really awful job of scissoring. Being left handed, this meant (and still does) either using right handed tools upside-down and backwards, or making use of typically blunt round edged “lefty” kid scissors from a kit of awkward tools for left handed kid. I eventually crafted an oblong pentagon featuring a smiling blond with a bouffant hairstyle, I want to say in a supine position. Cleverly, I left the irregularly cut page in place, smoothed it down and returned the magazine to a position midway in the stack. No one would notice. The next part of my remarkable plan to create the semblance of normalcy in the exchange of soft pornographic images between fourth graders sticks out in my mind because it was not only goofy but, as you will soon see, I will need to recreate it. I placed the picture in an oblong Hallmark greeting card envelope, with Hallmark distinctively embossed on the back. I must have thought this would be very discreet.

With little fanfare I delivered the picture to Chuck the next day, satisfied I had done my friend a good favor. Chuck and I played tag at lunch sometimes, and he was, unlike some of my peers, untroubled and nonviolent. Chuck was small in stature. At this time in our development the New York City school system felt compelled to arrange us by height and gender, preceded by a cry of, “Sized places everyone,” so Chuck was usually standing or seated next to Ian: a arrogant little dude with squinty eyes and curly hair.

I suppose in Chuck’s enthusiasm to begin his studies of the female figure, he indiscreetly opened the envelope in the classroom to examine the picture. Ian, proximate to him and with no respect for privacy, busied himself with nosing in on Chuck’s business. The result of this little indiscretion was that Ian, motivated I am sure in retrospect by impulses more deviant and sinister than innocent curiosity, resorted promptly to blackmail. He confronted me and demanded a picture of his own, or he would report me to Miss Robinson.

Miss Robinson was a strong, robust figure. She was a good, solid fourth grade teacher: fair, clear, instructive and remarkably composed compared to her peers, who at the time were supervising classes of 50+ kids. For example, our third grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald, was a real screamer. I stopped doing homework for two weeks in nonviolent protest, a strategy that in no way diminished the screaming, or registered to anyone like protest.

I forget the circumstances, but my entire class was at one point punished for some bad school yard behavior. Punishment consisted of the insidious standing against the wall, up against the school building and above the school yard, where for forty tortuous minutes you would have to observe your fellows at liberated play, while you could only stand up against the wall. Miss Robinson kept Chuck and me inside for this episode, and told us we could play for the lunch hour. The vice principal, whose own son was in our class and was at that moment outside standing up against the wall, got wind of this and showed up to challenge Miss Robinson. Miss Robinson defended us and her actions. “These are good boys. I didn’t think they deserved to be punished.” Chuck and I exchanged a glance of silent surprise.

In subsequent years I would run into Miss Robinson and her elderly mother at the Finast supermarket while out grocery shopping with my mother. She remained unmarried, and took care of her elderly mother who was often with her.

At this point in life I was highly skilled in not drawing attention to myself, one of the few, but key, survival mechanisms I was able to suss out on my own. A strong component of my strategy was to not cause trouble. Miss Robinson struck me as an individual I would really not want to piss off.

So my reluctant course of action seemed clear. That afternoon my home craft project continued. I went back to the same periodical and realized at this time, perhaps not too belatedly, that the further scissoring of pages would not go unnoticed, so I removed the whole page, carefully going to the opposite side of the binding to remove the rest of the sheet. This way my crime would be noticed only if the reader was paying close attention to the page numbering or following the written narrative, which I assumed, I think rightly, and may I congratulate the 9-year-old me for making such an intuitive assumption about the readers of girlie magazines, they would not be. I made sure I picked a less satisfying image for Ian. The subject was not particularly attractive or friendly. I cut carelessly, creased the image and, ever discrete, placed the cutout in a sealed Hallmark envelope.

After delivering the payoff, I felt relieved that the whole ordeal was over. I made it clear there were no more pictures to be had, I lied and said there weren’t any more magazines and I would not do this again.

I feel secure today in thinking later in life Ian did not move on to any employment that demanded discretion or subtly. He promptly went back to his desk, tore open the envelope and rigorously examined his picture of a naked lady. Seated then on the other side of Ian, at the front of the class where the short kids sat and the desks were smaller, was Collette. Collette was a petite brunette, not unattractive, with a delicate scattering of freckles across her nose. I recall she was a bit self-righteous, her senses highly attuned to wrong-doing. Being seated next to Ian she likely had a generous palette on which to exercise her perceptions.

I was oblivious to what must have transpired over the next day. To my great surprise at lunch on the playground I was confronted by a tough gang of girls, lead by Collette. The group included Dawn, whose family owned a bakery, Randi, a girl who loved horses and drew pictures of them endlessly, and Geraldine, who in a number of years would be the first girl I ever asked out on a date. I recall this group perfectly ascend in height in two to three inch intervals, with Geraldine and Dawn, the tallest girls, on the outside. Collette spoke for the group, with some fury.

“We know that you gave Chuck and Ian pictures of naked ladies. We saw them,” she spat. My mortification didn’t come from the fact these silly girls had found out, but with myself for running such a poor operation, and stupidly thinking it was ended. More than once I had fallen into a similar pattern of thinking that a narrative had reached a gratifying conclusion, and I’d never have to worry about that again. I was miserable because the story was now clearly not over, and seemed to me now endless, escalating forever into the future. I’d have to go to Port Richmond myself and somehow purchase stacks of nudie magazines, and supply legions of kids, all lined up, with pictures. I was almost out of Hallmark envelopes! Or an alternate scenario: this story would eventually make it home, and it would be added to the growing list of thing I did wrong, which was reviewed ad infinitum every few days for the rest of your life. I’d meet some fabulous girl, decide to marry, but at some point it would be brought up in conversation: “Jon can’t marry you. He’ll be too busy providing boys with pornographic pictures in Hallmark envelopes.” My brother would likewise be subjected to repeated lifelong criticism for providing, however unwittingly, the contraband.

Collette continued. “We are going to tell Miss Robinson. And she’s going to tell you mother you read dirty magazines.” At this moment I fell upon a strategy so cunning, so deftly enacted I can only view with stunned awe and respect my childhood self for coming up with it, then pulling it off. With a studied casualness I could not today recreate with a year of method acting workshops, I replied, “Oh she knows.” I added, “She lets me read them.” I was at once carefree and dismissive.

The result was astounding. All four girls visibly withered in unison. Collette spoke finally.

“You’re lying. We’re going to tell!”

I stayed committed to the scam. I had nothing to lose. I shrugged. “Go ahead.” Never one to be relaxed in the face of adversity, I exuded a calm disdain that I have recently admired in the Daniel Craig James Bond, and walked away. I braced for the worst, but nothing ever happened. And now, if you want to tell anybody what I did, go ahead.

© 2012 Jon C Lundell

11 August 2012

A STORY I LIKE to Tell


One summer at Penn State I took a survey Russian history course to fill a credit requirement. I knew next to nothing about Russia, except some minimal exposure to socialist realist paintings in books, which were appealing since they were competent and could, characteristically, distort the truth, so I figured that would be interesting.

Penn State in the summer was a very agreeable place. It was pleasant and warm, lush with greenery and virtually deserted. They make their own ice cream there from cream from their own cows and the fruit the agriculture college grows. You could get a massive cone for, like, a quarter. In the hot afternoon classroom we all met our instructor, a sturdy, diminutive Russian man by way of Oxford with a massive beard, named Dr. Sergei Utechin.

Dr. Utechin announced he would need a student assistant for the duration of the course. As I am sometimes prone to volunteer without thinking, and as I was otherwise in the company of room full of teenage slackers, after a few uncomfortable moments up shot my hand. I was drafted into service.

After class Dr. Utechin filled me in on my duties: get wall maps for class from the massive Pattee Library map room as he would direct, and to pick him up from a graduate seminar 20 minutes before class. Dr. Utechin explained to me he was so absentminded and could get so involved in his lecture he would forget to go to class entirely unless someone came to fetch him.

As I said, the weather was agreeable, my course work was interesting and I was working part time in the print shop, paid employment I truly enjoyed, and I had a full year before I had to graduate and face the heaving unknown quantity of my life, so I was somewhat relaxed. To add to the dreamy haze, Dr. Utechin was one of the most enjoyable, knowledgeable and warm individuals I have ever met. I soon grew to look forward to the walk with him across campus to class. He discussed literature, his adventures in Russia after attending western university, his garden, and how he looked forward to his approaching retirement when he would move to the west coast.

He was also generous in asking me about my life and work, and seemed to take sincere interest in what I was doing, having at this point in my life recently given up hopes of being a physicist (we are all grateful today I am not a physicist) and pursuing the arts.  

We had a discussion one Monday afternoon about the movie Blade Runner that had just opened, and came up when he asked me what I had done over the weekend. He asked me what I thought of it. I thought for a moment. “Well,” I explained, “it was visually stunning.”

“Ah! Of course! I should have known that would appeal to you.” He had just the slightest hint of an accent. He was surprised at one point to learn I had grown up in New York City. “But your spoken English - is perfect!” He would punctuate statements with an open palm, like he was pointing.

Here then is my favorite story about Dr. Utechin: One day he gave me a particularly complicated map order for class, and the student on duty in the map room was not very bright, and acted annoyed and distracted when helping me fill my order. I tried to look over his shoulder and direct him, but I was a little worried about what he finally gave me. I arrived early at the seminar room, it was high up in one of the academic towers, and asked, “Dr. Utechin, could you check over the maps to make sure I have the right ones.”

Dr. Utechin unrolled the maps on the big seminar table and read the legends. Gripping the edge of the table, he sighed heavily and bowed his head, shaking it. I was certain I had screwed up badly. He looked at me gravely, then gestured at me with his hand.

“You,” he annouced, “are a genius!”

The big tragedy of that summer was I took the course Pass/Fail, and pulled an A. One day I opened a pad and drew the fine gentleman, and just recently came across the image. Click here to see a drawing I made of Dr. Utechin.