Monday, July 30, 2012

The Ghost At Our Kitchen Table

A ghost sat at our kitchen table when I was a child, a ghost by the name of Grandpa Frank. He was my mother’s father, and he died seventy-six years ago in 1936. How he died always depended on who you asked. Stories range from scarlet fever to an accident brought about by falling from a church steeple he climbed on a dare. I don’t think I’ll ever know, but I have it on several counts that he was an invalid for the last two years of his life.

My mother has refused to let go of her father and carries his memory with her to this very day, speaking of him constantly. As a kid growing up it was as though Mom had fabricated him from a mental matrix, projecting his image at our kitchen table. Mom wasn’t a crackpot, didn’t actually believe he was present, but she’d speak of his exploits and achievements until I thought I could see him sitting in our kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Have I told you how much you look like your Grandpa Frank?” Mom would say. “You have his build and curly hair.”

I’d seen the old photographs and never saw much of a resemblance, but one contradicted my mother at their own risk.

“Your grandfather was born in the Azores, but the islands proved too small for him. He came to America with only a handful of dollars in his pockets. (The number of dollars changes with each telling.) He made his living as a professional gambler working the Gold Coast. He had beautiful hands, played the guitar and sang like an angel.”

Mother’s vision of her father was a fantasy, one she heaped with enough attributes to sink the Titanic: He had an amazingly sharp mind, believed in properly educating women and stood up for the rights of the downtrodden. In spite of his lack of formal schooling he was an intellectual and a scholar, a gifted storyteller. He was gentle with his three children but a stern parent with high expectations.

Even as a kid I realized that Grandpa Frank couldn’t have been the Portuguese Superman my mother described, but I did sometimes envision him as a Portuguese Brett Maverick, wearing fancy shirts and slapping cards on baize-covered tables in San Francisco gambling houses. Eventually, I realized that Grandpa Frank was a figment of my mother’s imagination, a fly caught in the web of her thoughts and fantasies. In fact, she knew very little about the father who passed away when she was only nine years old.

But my mother never allowed herself to be confined by facts. (Political discussions with her continue to be a nightmare.) She never questioned her contradictory beliefs about her father. He was whatever she needed him to be to illustrate whatever point she was pounding home.

When I was a kid, trapped in the snare of one of her lectures, her favorite expression was, “On my father’s grave this tyranny shall not stand!” She was only referring to the paperboy’s inability to land the newspaper on our doorstep or being overcharged a dime or two at the grocery store, but invoking the name of Grandpa Frank was her battle cry.

I’m not writing this with the intention of mocking my mother; being raised during the Depression without a father, the baby in an ethnic family and a mere girl to boot, couldn’t have been easy. Few took her seriously back then, and fewer do now. A few days ago I was visiting the retirement home where Mrs. C. and I moved her a few years ago after my father passed. She asked how my blog was going. I told her it was going well.

“That’s good,” she said. “I swear to you on my father’s grave that you got your ability to tell stories from me. I inherited the ability to fascinate people from your grandfather, a fabulous storyteller and a gifted writer with exquisite handwriting.” Strange that none of this writing has ever surfaced, but she continued to tout the Portuguese Charles Dickens who fathered her for the next forty minutes.

As often happens during these visits, I wonder what Grandpa Frank would think if he could see his little girl, now a withered woman of eighty-seven, working so hard to keep his memory alive all these years. Would he recognize himself in her stories?

I can almost see him in the corner of my eye, sitting at the tiny bistro table in Mom’s kitchenette. I imagine him smiling, but he does look tired by it all.

* The photograph shows Grandpa Frank on his wedding day in 1917


Note: Many of you might not be receiving the replies I'm sending in response to your comments. A few days ago many of these started bouncing back to me. I notice that "NO REPLY" is now included in the return address. If you aren't receiving my replies and you want them, you might check out this blog ; it explains what's going on. I treasure all the comments I receive and wouldn't want anyone thinking I was ignoring them.


Sunday, July 29, 2012


Do you have special words in your family that aren’t found in the dictionary, words only those who share DNA with you can understand? A few weeks ago CJ was visiting. Mrs. C. fried up some chicken. After eating his fill, our son pushed away his plate and announced he’d had enough. I wasn’t finished eating and without thinking exclaimed, “Moosh-vega!”

“Are you having a stroke, Dad?” CJ asked. “What was that you said—moosh-vega?”

“It’s a Portuguese word your grandmother taught me as a child. Your grandmother’s family spoke it at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or any other holiday celebrated with food. It was spoken all the time in our house when I was growing up, and it was spoken often when you were growing up, too. Have you forgotten?”

“He scratched his chin. “I guess so. Wait a minute; I do remember. But I forgot what it means.”

“It means, “Glad you don’t want anymore because that leaves more for me.” I took another piece of chicken from the platter on the table.

“All that crammed into moosh-vega? Sounds farfetched,” he said.

“It’s really a useful word,” I countered.

He smiled at me. “Yeah, if you’re a glutton.”

Since this exchange I’ve tried to dig up information on the word that figured so prominently in my childhood—moosh-vega. I haven’t been successful. Aside from family members, none of the Portuguese people I know have heard of it. I’ve Googled it but I’m not familiar with the proper spelling and what I’ve written is a phonetic spelling. Making it even more complicated: Portuguese is spoken differently in Portugal, Brazil, and the Azores where our family came from. And a hundred years in America has probably twisted the language almost beyond recognition. In short, no one outside of my extended family is aware of this word.

I’m curious: do you have special words you use to call your children to the dinner table? Do you have a special code decipherable only to family members? I’m willing to bet you have certain words or expressions not understood by the general public.

Language is a feast for the ears, and I’m willing to share my special word with you—moosh-vega. It’s a fine word, but it might be too rich for the vocal palates of many of you. Fine! Restrict yourself to familiar words, words banal enough to show up in the dictionary. I’m a glutton for words real and imaginary. I gobble them up like a whale sucking in krill. What's that you say? You don't like krill?


Friday, July 27, 2012

Wandering Buddha

Not long ago Mrs. C. and I decided to visit The Portland Japanese Garden. Portland’s climate is similar to Japan’s and our garden is considered one of the best in the country. We visit every few years and try to time our trips when the cherry trees are blossoming. Helpful guides are on hand to explain the history of Japanese landscape design and the evolution of a garden which was once the site of our zoo’s elephant house. We’ve always preferred wandering around on our own, but this last time a tour was departing as we entered. We joined it.

I snapped dozens of pictures; as usual I never fail to be rejuvenated by the garden and inspired by Japanese culture and their love of nature. Toward the end of our tour we paused to take pictures. I noticed a knee-high stone carving of the young Buddha a short distance from the path we’d been following.

“What can you tell us about this sculpture?” I asked, pointing at it.

Our guide scratched his ear and ran a hand through his sparse hair. “I can’t tell you much,” he said.

This seemed out of character; until now he’d been a font of information, a botanical and cultural encyclopedia.

“I’ve been a volunteer guide here for about twenty years,” he explained. “This statue of Buddha turned up a few months ago. We have no idea where it came from or how it happens to be here.”

The tour’s curiosity was piqued and cameras clicked like a swarm of cicadas.

“We’ve researched the statue and learned that it’s approximately a hundred and fifty years old, but we haven’t managed to learn anything more. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s possible it came from a temple and was taken as a souvenir by an American soldier during the war.”

That didn’t explain how or why the Buddha ended up here. When the tour was over Mrs. C. and I returned to the statue so I could take a few more pictures. The Buddha wasn’t all that massive, but it had to weigh close to thirty pounds. Heavy for a war souvenir. Had it sat in a GI’s garden until he grew remorseful and decided to return it? Curious since Portland was a long way from Japan. Of course it might not have been a GI at all. But someone managed to breech security and lug it through dense foliage and twisted uneven paths.

Secrets and mysteries are said to be the domain of sphinxes, but here in Portland we have a mysterious and enigmatic Buddha. Perhaps one day our Buddha will open his eyes and let us in on his secret. Until then, someone had better keep their eyes on this guy. He wanders.

Here are a few more photographs of the Portland Japanese Garden.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Towering Epiphany

We were hanging around our cramped one bedroom apartment in Santa Monica with a couple of friends. Mrs. C. and I hadn’t been married long. We were short on money and looking for cheap entertainment. Mel, formerly my dorm roommate, said, “Why don’t we go check out the Watts Towers?”

“The what?” I asked. I’d transferred to UCLA for my final year of college and still wasn’t familiar with the area.

“I hear it’s really cool,” Mrs. C. piped in.

Mel added, “An Italian guy started creating these giant towers of junk in the 1920’s and worked on them for over thirty years. He disappeared after finishing them.”

I stroked my chin. “But Watts…isn’t that a bad part of town?”

Aaroni perked up. Her off-beat parents had wanted a boy to name after Aaron Burr. We’d met working in our dorm’s kitchen my senior year. She was wearing a peasant blouse and skirt made of men’s dress ties, worn like a hula skirt. I don’t recall her taking any classes.

“There was racial rioting in the mid sixties,” she said. “A bunch of people were killed, but that was a long time ago. I’m sure it’s safe now.”

I was the only one with wheels. We checked under the cushions for coins to fill the gas tank, climbed into my faded blue Beetle and hit the highway in search of the Watts Towers. As fate would have it, we never found them.

The day was bright but the sky had skimmed over with thin clouds. Late afternoon traffic was building along with the heat. The Beetle’s air-conditioning, erratic at best, wheezed and died. I rolled down my window, and that was when I saw a UFO spinning in the air, glinting in the dirty light. My eyes followed its trajectory—an unfortunate distraction drawing my attention away from the cars braking in front of me. The sound of colliding vehicles prompted me to look directly ahead. I saw red lights and pounded my brakes, but it was too late. I wasn’t the only one distracted by the UFO, which turned out to be a hood that had flown from its car. I plowed into the vehicle in front of me, becoming the last in a nine car pile-up.

Fortunately, no one was hurt. The police arrived and we all gave statements and exchanged insurance information. Then Mrs. C. and I, along with our companions, piled back into the Beetle and limped to the nearest off ramp, which landed us in downtown Watts. The front right fender was smashed over the wheel and the slow-moving Beetle lurched like a wino. I pulled to the curb and studied the street, not liking what I saw.

Most of the houses were boarded up. A gas station on the corner was surrounded by a gated chain link fence topped with razor wire and barricaded with plywood so you couldn’t see inside. I doubted the station was still operational but I figured it was my responsibility to get us out of this situation since I’d done such a poor job driving. I left Mel to guard the womenfolk, walked over to the gate and pushed it open. What I encountered made my heart freeze.

In a courtyard, a dozen black men in tank tops and tattoos were throwing knives at pennies in the dirt. Several of them looked up at me. Crowbars materialized in their hands. A giant fellow stood and sauntered up to me. “What’re you doing here?” he asked, towering over me.

I felt whiter than the Pillsbury Doughboy and anticipated a game of Whack-the-Mole, with me being the mole. I’d like to brag, claim my voice didn’t crack, but I’d be lying. “My friends and I were on our way to see the Watts Towers,” I squeaked. “We had an accident. Is there a mechanic here I could pay to help us?” I’d momentarily forgotten that all of our money had gone into the gas tank.

“We’re all mechanics here,” he said. “Let’s see this car of yours.”

These so-called mechanics followed me to the street. I tried to ignore the crowbars several of them had insisted on bringing along. There was no need to point out my car; it was the only one on the street with tires and not jacked up on cinderblocks. They surrounded the Beetle. I held my breath and tried to look brave for my wife and friends, none of whom exited the car to stand beside me.

My heart was jackhammering in my chest when the crowbars suddenly came into play; they pried the crumpled fender off the wheel so it could turn properly. When they were done, one of them grunted, “Where you headed?”

“Santa Monica,” I answered.

Another dude said, “Go down two blocks and take a left. You got a twisted frame and a few other problems, so stay off the freeway. This Bug ain’t up to speed in its present condition.”

They were friendly and cooperative, and I felt guilty having misjudged them. We were halfway home when I realized they hadn’t bothered asking for money. They treated me far better than my insurance company, which later dropped me when the other motorists claimed I caused the pile-up by pushing all of the braking cars together.

I learned a valuable lesson about human nature that day in Watts. Over the years I’ve had several auto accidents and I’ve learned not to judge people by their appearance. Character is important, not background or skin color. If it were possible to look into a person’s soul it would be apparent that all humans are pretty much the same—everyone is willing to lie to the police and point a finger of blame at the person on the tail end of a pile-up. Trust me on this.

To date, I’ve never seen the Watts Towers.

* If you aren’t aware of the Watts Towers I hope you’ll Google them. It’s amazing what an untrained artist managed to accomplish by himself.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Silk Road

We’d left Cappadocia and were driving along the Anatolian plain in central Turkey when our bus pulled off the road and headed down a narrow path, gravel crunching beneath our tires. I had no idea why we were stopping but at least it was an opportunity for me and Mrs. C. to stretch our legs. Our guide informed us that we’d arrived at the Sultanhani Kervansaray.

“The what?” I mumbled under my breath. I didn’t remember reading anything about this on our itinerary.

“Where the hell are we?” Mrs. C. asked, glancing around at a place that looked like time had forgotten.

We stepped out of our bus and immediately missed the air-conditioning; the stiflingly hot air was thick with dust kicked up by our tires. The terrain was flat and treeless except for a few apricot trees incapable of providing much shade. A score of unpainted concrete houses matched the muted colors of the landscape. The only structure of interest was a colossal stone wall with an arched opening where the portal appeared to have been designed by a swarm of massive wasps.

Selchuk, our ever-cheerful guide, explained. “Welcome to the town of Sultanhani. It isn’t much to look at, but a thousand years ago this was a hotspot on The Silk Road. Bandits prowled the countryside preying on caravans loaded down with precious silk, gold and silver, and spices.” He pointed at the thick wall. “Behind that wall is a kervansaray, or caravan fort. These have been used since the tenth century, offering amenities and protection for merchants and stabling for their animals.”

Selchuk was a wealth of information. “In kervansarays, foreign as well as native traders would find hospitality for three days. Their shoes would be repaired or the poor would be given new shoes. The ill would be treated and animals would be tended, and if needed horses would be shod. For their religious practices, travelers would use a small mosque in the center of the courtyard.”

As we passed beneath the arched entrance I remembered reading an article in an archeological magazine purporting that Jesus hadn’t actually been born in a stable as we’ve come to imagine it. He was probably born in a large compound that housed up to three thousand people and half as many animals. According to the article, in ancient times forts were constructed for travelers with rooms lining the inside of protective walls. In the center of the fort was a large courtyard where animals were kept. Those who couldn’t obtain a room slept in the courtyard with the animals. The fort I’d read about, the so-called stable where it was speculated Jesus was born, was much like the kervansaray Mrs. C. and I were walking through, even though this one had been built a thousand years after Jesus’ birth.

We almost stepped on a snoozing Anatolian shepherd that had taken shelter from the withering heat in the shadow of a dried-up fountain. His colors were so close to the grey-brown stones that he was nearly invisible. The huge dog lifted his head and blinked slowly at us as we disappeared into the cool, dark interior where centuries earlier travelers and their animals had huddled for protection from storms.

We were alone inside. It might have been my imagination but my ears picked up the excited talk of heated discussions, and when I inhaled deeply I could smell the lingering scent of camels and horses, spices from far-a-way India and China, along with the effluvium of those intrepid travelers who, for a time, made this one of the most prosperous regions on earth.

I’d come to this place by bus, not by caravan, and souvenir peddlers chased us when we departed instead of bandits waiting to slit our throats and seize our precious goods. But we felt strangely safe in this place where goods and ideas were exchanged, where cultures joined together like different ropes creating a single knot, and where the world we now live in was created.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hello Kitty!

Our townhouse in Portland, Oregon, is surrounded by highways and roads, but we’re located in an area that was once a great forest. All that remains of that forest is a creek and a grove of trees maintained by our local park district. Aside from a hawk or two, I’ve never spotted anything interesting in these trees, until yesterday.

I’m not much of a photographer (If you like inspiring pictures I encourage you to visit my friends at Daniel’s View or The Smitten Image) but I managed to snap these fuzzy shots of something I encountered on my way home from getting a haircut.

I’d just turned the corner leading to my garage when I saw a strange animal with prey in it’s mouth. The prey was instantly dropped as the beastie dove into the underbrush. It happened so quickly I couldn’t be certain what I’d seen. I parked my car in the garage and went to check out what had been dropped in the street—a squirrel, still twitching. I returned to the house, grabbed my camera and waited to see what would return for its meal. The wait was short.

This is what emerged from the bushes. I’ve never seen one of these before. I think I know what it is, but I bet some of you out there in Blogger Land have more experience with these than me. Is this the chupacabra I’ve heard so much about?

My New friend at Joey’s Pad was kind enough to give me this award. I’m just getting to know LL Cool's fine blog and I encourage you to check it out. I’m supposed to answer two questions.

#1 Why did I decide to start a blog?

I’ve always loved telling stories but I couldn’t get agents or publishers interested in my mystery/thriller novels. Our son suggested I start a blog to share my story-telling skills with others. I’m about to reach the first year anniversary of Chubby Chatterbox and the response to my work has been greater than I could have imagined. Evidently I’m an unconvincing international man of mystery, but no one seems to have trouble accepting me as a chubby chatterbox.

#2 What do you find is the hardest aspect of blogging?

I never fail to be impressed by the wit and intelligence of those leaving me comments. I make a point of responding to these comments because I want my readers to know how much I respect and appreciate them. But this is beginning to take up more and more of my time and sometimes Mrs. Chatterbox feels like a Blogger’s widow. I need to do a better job of balancing my home life with my blogging pursuits.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Peculiar Picture #12

I have a confession to make; I have a fetish. Those of you who read my post Fancy Footwork will no doubt think I have a foot fetish. Not true. I have a fetish for islands. When stress overcomes me and I close my eyes and set sail for my imaginary happy place, I always find myself on a remote beach with my toes half-buried in warm sand. I was weaned on movies like Mysterious Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island and I’ve never gotten over the idea of traveling to a remote island and finding treasure worthy of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Over the years I’ve fed my Robinson Crusoe fantasies with trips to exotic islands like Rarotonga, Bora Bora, Isla Mujeres and Corfu. I just can’t get enough of turquoise water, palm trees and shimmering white sand. I’ve created many pictures of islands over the years, most of them inspired by topographical beauty, but these two paintings of the same island came from a remote place in my imagination, a place not stamped on any passport. This is not an island that’s going to end up on a Carnival Cruise itinerary.

Have you been to an exotic island, or dreamed of sailing to one?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Furniture Fiasco

Have you ever purchased a piece of furniture only to realize you’d made a dreadful mistake? Mrs. Chatterbox and I made a regrettable decision when we visited Paris on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Our trip had been a bust; much of the city was on strike; all the museums, monuments, and many of the churches were closed. Trains were also shut down so we couldn’t leave town. Bored, we decided to kill time at the Paris flea market which, unfortunately as it turned out, happened to be open.

We found a massive armoire that we thought perfect for hiding the ugly big screen TV in our living room. Crafted in the 1740s, it was almost ten feet tall. It cost nearly as much as our trip. Our judgment might have been impacted by our disappointment that Paris had shut its door on us, but we decided the armoire was just the gift to give each other to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We arranged for it to be crated and shipped home.

(Note: If you ever buy anything large in Europe, pay in advance and have it shipped home PAID IN FULL. Otherwise, the price will triple by the time it’s delivered to you. Also, you’re paying by size rather than weight, so don’t be stupid like we were and ship it home empty.)

Delivery was delayed by cargo handler strikes in Paris, Antwerp, Montreal and Seattle. Nearly six months after we returned from Paris, a truck arrived with the crated armoire. I couldn’t help thinking that if the damn thing had been shipped by frigate in the 1740s when it was made, it would have gotten here quicker, even without a Panama Canal.

CJ was home from college, and he and I worked up a sweat prying open the crate. When he looked inside he laughed and said, “Shit, it’s another wooden box! Are there dozens of these things inside, each one smaller than the next like Russian dolls?”

I wiped the sweat from my face and assured him there was only one box to uncrate, but it did seem ridiculous that we’d paid to box a big box. CJ summoned a few friends and it took all of us to drag the behemoth armoire into the living room; it was solid oak and weighed a ton. I hoped it wouldn’t crash through the floor. After we lifted the big screen TV into the armoire CJ, our mechanical wizard, hooked up all the wires so our entertainment system would work. When the task was completed we shared cokes and admired our work. The armoire, looking like an ornate confessional, nearly touched the ceiling and made our big screen TV look miniscule. I could now go to confession without leaving the house, and I could watch Antiques Roadshow while making my contrition.

CJ, who’d grown so tall by then that he loomed over me, waited until his friends had left to put his arm on my shoulder and say, “Dad, I love you. But there’s no way in hell I’m ever going to help you move this stupid thing!”

I swigged the coke and said,” You poor bastard; hasn’t it occurred to you that as an only child you’re gonna inherit it?”

As it turned out, CJ didn’t inherit the colossal armoire. The floor of our living room began to buckle beneath its weight. And it might have been old but it wasn’t constructed well and it began to tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Adding insult to injury, our TV never got good reception in it. We finally called an antique gallery that agreed to place it in one of their upcoming auctions. We learned that the armoire might be old but its value was limited because it wasn’t made from decorative wood like walnut or cherry, and it was too big to be practical in most homes today. We were also obligated to pay three hundred dollars for pick up and delivery to their gallery, which would come from the proceeds.

Our Paris souvenir failed at auction; no one even bid on it. We’d been told that if it wasn’t sold we’d be notified so they could return it. Unfortunately for the gallery, they were unable to contact us because we’d moved away. Through a terrible oversight we’d failed to provide a forwarding address or phone number, so they were unable to return it to us.

Sometimes I almost feel bad about it.

P.S. If you think we were fools to give this up when you would have snapped it up in a New York minute, consider that our armoire was much bigger than the one pictured. And twice as heavy. It took five men and a dolly to remove it from our house. Also, our armoire wasn’t shiny walnut like this one, and it tilted. We spent a thousand dollars repairing our floor so we could sell the house.

Still want it?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pimping The Duke's Ride

When I graduated from college and decided to become a professional artist I had to figure out what type of art I wanted to specialize in. I considered painting landscapes because I enjoyed depicting mountains and streams, but I settled on portrait painting because nothing gave me greater pleasure than smearing colors on a blank surface to create an image that looked like it could talk back to you. This, for me, was pure magic.

I placed samples of my work in a few art galleries but my phone didn’t ring off the hook. For weeks it didn’t ring at all. Finally, a retired rancher called to arrange a meeting to discuss a painting he wanted to commission. His ranch was in the foothills of San Jose. I wasn’t very interested in Western art, but his collection was impressive. I recognized names on some of the paintings: Russell, Remington, Hurd. This white-haired cowboy was a serious collector. We chatted for an hour and he finally commissioned me to paint a portrait of John Wayne for his collection. Painting John Wayne wouldn’t be difficult, but I was commissioned to paint him on horseback.

Although I’d never painted a horse before, I refused to be deterred. I was determined to paint a damn fine horse. After my meeting with the old fellow I stopped at the library for books with photographs of John Wayne, returned to my studio and began sketching. After a few days I stretched a large canvas to the agreed upon dimensions and started to paint. Before long, Duke was looking back at me with his trademark lopsided grin. Everything was going smoothly, more smoothly than I’d imagined. Then I tackled the horse.

I quickly ran into trouble. I’d grown up in the suburbs and had never been close to a real horse. But I’d been to a few parades and had seen enough photographs to know that I was depicting Duke riding something that looked like it sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss, a cross between a giant collie and a llama. After several days of painting, repainting and scraping away mistakes, I achieved something that resembled a horse.

When I delivered the canvas, the old rancher placed my canvas on an easel, poured two whiskies and invited me to sit down. My palms were damp and I struggled not to drop my glass. This was my first commission and I really wanted to please my client. I liked the old guy but foremost in my mind was the fact that he was wealthy and could help promote my fledgling career. Unfortunately, his response was not what I’d hoped for.

“It's a fine likeness of John Wayne,” he said, pausing to sip his whiskey. “But why did you paint him on a Mongolian war pony?”

I’d chosen a poor time to take a gulp of whiskey. His question caught me by surprise. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking whiskey and sprayed his Navaho rug. He dashed over to me and started slapping me on the back. I was humiliated and wished I could change places with the head of the stuffed elk on his wall.

Sometimes fate gives you a second chance. It turned out that the old cowboy was quite a gentleman. He said, “Don’t feel bad. Even great painters have weaknesses. Goya was one of the best painters ever, but the man couldn’t paint a horse to save his life. He painted the King and Queen of Spain riding giant pigs.”

He knew a lot about horses. He showed me around his ranch and introduced me to his horses. I even sat on one, my first and only time in a saddle. I took my painting home and reworked it until I was satisfied. When I returned it to him, his broad smile told me I’d succeeded.

I’ve painted many portraits since then, but that was my one and only horse. Unfortunately, I can’t watch a John Wayne western without picturing him astride my first attempt at an equine. But there was one role where he would have looked just fine sitting on a Mongolian war pony.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Going, Going...Gone.

Few people admire the ancient Romans more than I do. It’s true that they suffered from blood thirst and debauchery at times, and they endured a fair share of incompetent or crazy emperors, but Roman society functioned as a well-oiled machine, operating so perfectly that even with a madman as emperor at the top of the political pyramid, the society usually managed to function for the majority of the empire’s people, provided you weren’t a slave. Consider that over forty governments today do a poor job of governing what Rome governed all by itself, using one law and one currency. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that these cultural and military titans were different from us, but today I’m going to prove that, in one respect, they had the same desire as you and me—they demanded clean toilets!

In its heyday, the Roman city of Ephesus had a population of a quarter of a million people. And as the title of a famous children’s book wisely informs: Everyone Poops. Sanitation was a serious issue in ancient times; dysentery could wipe out an army or entire population. The Romans were superb engineers. They invented aqueducts to transport fresh water from great distances, as well as indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water.

This photo, taken on a recent trip to Turkey, shows a two thousand year old public toilet at Ephesus. People would hitch up their togas and have a sit. Water flowed beneath the marble opening to wash away waste, and sponges on sticks, dipped in vinegar, were used instead of toilet paper. Very tidy, but just thinking about it makes me pucker up.

I know you’ve been wondering how the masters of the ancient world took a cr—went to the bathroom, and now you know. Unfortunately, while taking this photo I received the call of nature. Unlike the fortunate inhabitants of Ephesus, I had to walk half a mile to find a port-o-potty.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Snake Charmer

The studio was packed with friends and admirers who’d come to celebrate an unappreciated old man, someone who’d long since given up on success and acclaim. Well-wishers raising their glasses to toast Henri Rousseau all shared a secret; the guest of honor was a shameful liar.

Rousseau was a generation older than these new kids on the block, artists like Pablo Picasso. Picasso had lent his studio and arranged the banquet for Rousseau. The Spaniard was one of the few who knew the artist’s real name. Most of those patting the old man on the back referred to him simply as Le Douanier (the customs officer). Even this was a lie, spread by Rousseau himself. He never held the position of customs officer, he’d merely been an underpaid toll collector at one of the gates of Paris.

The banquet thrown for Rousseau took place in 1908 when the artist was sixty-four. He looked older than his years and would be dead in two years. This would be the only time in his life when he would be celebrated by his peers, and his weary eyes must have misted over at the sight of so many young artists gathered to pay him homage, this at a time when he couldn’t sell his work and had been supplementing his income by playing his violin in the streets. Most critics laughed and dismissed his work as na├»ve or childish, but Le Douanier found a home in the hearts of these talented young bohemians.

Picasso told the story often, how he’d seen one of Rousseau’s paintings protruding from the back of a pushcart stacked with trash. On the canvas a sturdy woman had been portrayed in a brash guileless manner unlike anything Picasso had seen. The peasant pushing the cart offered the canvas for a few coins, telling the future Father of Modern Art that it could be painted over. Picasso had no intention of re-using the canvas, which he considered a masterpiece. He purchased it on the spot, and later dashed off to seek out the artist.

Picasso was fascinated by Rousseau, who claimed to be self-taught with “no teacher other than nature.” Picasso admired the old man’s paintings, enjoyed the fanciful stories and spread the word. Before long, Le Douanier was the darling of young artists on the prowl for something fresh and new. Interesting that this was to be found in the paintings of an unacknowledged old toll collector.

The direction of art was changing. Academies and salons were no longer the vanguards of artistic exceptionalism. Years of training to master perspective, color theory and paint application were suddenly considered a waste of time. Truth would be the goal of modern art. And truth, contrary to what philosophers thought, couldn’t be taught but was to be found in individual human expression. Picasso and his friends recognized more than truth in Rousseau’s work; they saw purity, and innocence untainted by art history. Psychology was about to be born, and would soon replace philosophy.

Rousseau’s best known paintings depicted jungle scenes, and Rousseau claimed they were inspired by his military service, which was said to have included the French Expeditionary Force to Mexico. This was a lie; Rousseau never set foot in exotic lands, never journeyed outside of France. The animals he painted were inspired by trips to the zoo, illustrated books and visits to taxidermy shops. Many of the exotic plants in his work were taken from old engravings or observed at Paris’ botanical gardens.

In 1907 Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer. At first glance it’s easy to see why art critics ridiculed it; the colors and modeling are flat and unsophisticated, the lighting is peculiar, and the snakes are unrealistic tree branches. Even the plants refuse to conform to nature, his ferns stand in straight lines as if in a police line up. Rousseau later admitted that when he visited botanical gardens and saw exotic plants he felt like he was entering a dream, no doubt a place more real to him than his shabby life.

Serious artists no longer concern themselves with mimicking nature—cameras perform this chore—so when I stood before the surprisingly large Snake Charmer a few years ago I wasn’t prepared to be assaulted by the intensity of Rousseau’s reality. This wasn’t the reality of a sugary Parisian street scene, the type made famous by the Impressionists; here was something both new and ancient. Rousseau’s painting pulses with psychological energy while speaking timeless truths. It blazes a path forward toward Surrealism and the subconscious while harkening back to a place primordial, where cave painters captured the souls of animals to make them easier to hunt.

Now when I see this painting I envision Rousseau charming a young generation of artists, those who would later see in his work the impetus to bid farewell to preconceptions of reality in favor of a world of imagination, a universe of wondrous possibilities.

Rousseau was a liar; but has anyone else ever lied so exquisitely?

Also by Rousseau:

"The Dream." Rousseau's last painting.

Sleeping Gypsy.