232. My Personal Paint-by-Number Vietnam

So my daughter reminded me of a dark episode in my life when I was stuck with the endless paint job from hell. It was 1993, I think. Back in those days I painted houses over the summers when I was “off” from my teaching job. I had a full schedule that summer, but I received a desperate phone call from a woman I used to work with who was moving back to Turtle Town after years in Florida. You see, I had painted her last house in this area and it met with her expectations, so naturally I had to paint the local home she had just purchased. I made minor excuses on the phone why I could not possibly take on her job… the summer was nearly over, I did not have the man power, I was already tired, etc. She  pleaded. I relented. I took ownership of her imaginary problem. Never, bloggy wogs, never take ownership of others’ problems. Why? Because their problem becomes your problem times ten, and you wind up like the U.S. did in Vietnam, fighting someone else’s unwinnable battle with no dignified way out. Oh, and covered in pigeon crap from head to toe.

I believe the draft call came in August. Ellen charmed as much as she could. Could I at least come and give an estimate? My paint partner knew intuitively that nothing good could possibly come from this. He warned me. I ignored him. God bless him, he came along on the estimate to try and keep me from disaster, though he clearly stated he was opposed to the idea. Here’s the thing: the house was just fine. It was in move in shape, but the homeowners did not want the country style paint and wallpaper choices. They wanted a stark white on white theme throughout the large cape cod. The antique white paint could not remain, nor could the perfectly matched wall paper. Instead she needed a CoCo Chanel look throughout, and I was too stupid to pump my brakes, downshift and park. However, to justify myself a bit, I had only experienced success within my ten years or so of contract painting. I generally enjoyed the process and could not foresee this thing happening to me…ala the Stones “Paint it Black” song. Only my ode would be “Paint it White”. “I see an oak door and I want to paint it white. No colors anymore, I want them to turn white.”

Okay, after a  safe bid of $2500 to do the inside walls and trim, I called on two other paint crews. I had 10 experienced guys on site for most of a week. We never even got upstairs. The paint we bought at Duron just would not cover anything. Barry came to me with his concern. “Just double coat the wall”, I said. “I did already. It’s not covering.” Gulp. “Okay, give it a third coat.” I knew that the labor was far more expensive than the paint, but the homeowners had picked the brand and the anemic bright white. I was floundering. Little did I know that the flat wall paint was the least of my worries. The next day Roger came to me and said, “The trim paint is not drying.” “Say What?” He demonstrated what he meant. “Look. I painted this trim three days ago.” He ran his finger across the windowsill and the shiny paint rolled up into a ball. “Oh no!!” I’d never seen such a thing. I felt panic surge in my stomach. “Wha, wha, wha…” I could not make complete words. My neocortex was shutting down.

I was out of money budgeted to pay my crew. I thanked them and paid them for time in. My partner and I were staring at half a job ahead of us and a completely unfinished story behind us. I was angry at the paint store. I knew something serious was wrong with their paint and I went in on Monday a.m. to make my demands and threats. The regular paint store guys admitted that something was wrong with their paint. It should have covered and hardened but obviously did not. They asked me what I needed. I told them $1500 for the wasted labor, and replacement paint. They nodded and seemed  to agree with my demands. Unfortunately the next day the owner of the store dismissed all my concerns, claiming that the problem was on my side. He made the preposterous charge that I had failed to prep the surfaces and some mystery oil was preventing his paint from adhering to my walls.  Wow, I knew I was completely screwed. I had already paid out more than half of the bid for maybe a quarter of the work done. I had  a lying paint company owner in front of me and angry homeowners behind me. Plus my prophetic and pissed off paint partner was beside me. What a quagmire, a tropical swamp, a… Vietnam of painting.

Well, there it was. I had no way out but to work my way out. My partner stayed as long as he could stomach the drama as Ellen moaned and her husband kvetched. The paint store folks suggested that I use a paint hardener to firm up the bubble gum paint that lacked hardener to begin with. They could not see the irony in their retrofit. I fumed and so did the highly volatile solution. Then I had to use oil based paint on top of the hardener to guarantee results. Had we simply used the right paint to begin with, I would not have this heart ache to report to you now. Meanwhile the cranky homeowner complained of the fumes from the oil based paint while he watched the Dow Jones rise and fall daily, coughing himself into fits of asphyxiation. Ellen tried to appease him and seemed to get a measure of reassurance from my endless presence. I worked evenings, weekends and holidays well into the late fall of that year to expiate myself from my Vietnama drama. In the end I had a personal testimony of pain and suffering that rivaled Mick Jagger’s.  “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes, I turn my head away until my darkness goes.” I wanna see it painted, painted, painted white. Oh the horror!

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231. Uninspired Torpidity 1961

 

Inspire conjures up the act of breathing, breathing in some magic spirit like freedom that leads to the creation of something new. But that breath does not always show up, just like perfect crystalline days don’t show up too often here in Central Pennsylvania. Many days are smudgy with all the humidity loitering in the warm air. Old timers blame all the trees that grow here for the moist weather. They expire, the trees and the old guys do… and I don’t get their reasoning. However, when the dew point moves past 60, muggy is the word. I sort of like the criminality of that weather word, as if the very air is forcibly robbing us with nothing more than a sweaty hand in its saggy pocket.

“Stick’m up, pardners! This here is a wet robbery. I got a big old squirt gun under this paper bag. Plus, I got a fat lady with a wet wool blanket ready to squeeze  you taight if you don’t behave.  Ya’ll been sweatin’ up a bunch of stink. You’ns can put your arms down now. Whew. I’m just muggin’, okay? Nobody needs to get hurt here if you just slow down and act like some good ole Alabamians. Get you some tea and put your feet up in a shady spot. There ya go. Just procrastinate a while. Live in the past. Drink a lot of liquor.”

Whether or not you like it, weather is not that polite or predictable. It swarms in over night and saturates the local atmosphere. No negotiations.  The combination of heat and humidity can stultify a man’s brain, leaving him uninspired, a locked vault door behind which are wonderful treasures piled high. We can’t have this outcome, bloggitties. A psychic thunderstorm must well up and conquer this wet blanket of oppression. We cannot tolerate weather thugs with bags on their heads mugging us.

 Ah, much better. Refreshing actually. But is it enough to turn over the inspiration ignition?  Let’s see. “Vrrr, rrrr,rrrr, room, room, room.” Alright! I’m breathing hard and deep. Ready to run a creative marathon. Maybe just finish this post. We’ll see.

So, I’ve been observing lately that doubt precedes faith, which precedes proof or facts, and then eventually along comes validation. The other night I was watching a show about The Freedom Riders in the 1960’s Deep South. What heroic folks they were. They knowingly boarded Trailways and Greyhound buses for Montgomery, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi in order to be arrested at their destination and put into prison on bogus racially discriminatory charges. Along the way they were often beaten or nearly killed. In Mississippi they were put in an infamous prison and forced into hard manual labor or death row accomodations. And still more came, flooding the prison. In the film footage I watched, the Freedom Riders looked curious and resolute but never scared. They complied nonviolently with hostile morons in police uniforms who believed in or belonged to the KKK. Somehow the Freedom Riders stayed united in spirit, unbroken in their faith that they would prevail along with justice. The native whites reminded me of nauseating Nazis off the leash, unrestrained. How on earth did that unjust oppression work for so long against so many? Makes me wonder if we have a similar atrocity building up today that is merely tolerated and buried in the back pages of our news. There is no shortage of ignorance or guns in our country after all.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Kennedy brothers looked for political solutions. They did not want to turn the conflict into federal versus states’ rights. Backing southern governors into a corner only fueled the anti-federal government feelings already at fever pitch in Old Dixie.  The rule of law had to come from their pens not from the elitist East Coast Kennedys or the Supreme Court. The south refused to recognize the fact that Jim Crow laws were found to be unconstitutional. They simply continued on as usual. The political humidity built and built past muggy into severely oppressive, into  total saturation. Southern torpidity was complete; a fresh wind had to blow through like a tornado and turn shacks and shanties upside down. And that is what happened.

The fresh cool wind was actually comprised of committed black and white Americans on buses and then trains heading south, into the torpid wall of resistance and ignorance. Cold dry air slamming into hot moist air creates tornados which create havoc and destruction. Yes indeed, as in mother nature so too in human nature. The two forces collided and both moved.

On May 14, Mother’s Day, in Anniston, a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, some still in church attire, attacked the first of the two buses (the Greyhound). The driver tried to leave the station, but was blocked until KKK members slashed its tires.[8] The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it.[9][10] As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Sources disagree, but either an exploding fuel tank[9] or an undercover state investigator brandishing a revolver[11] caused the mob to retreat, and the riders escaped the bus. The mob beat the riders after they escaped the bus. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.

 

I wonder what the sermon was on that Mother’s Day that those Klansmen had heard? I don’t ever recall hearing a call to arms in all my 58 years of going to church. Never heard one that urged me to hate my neighbor or to kill my perceived enemy. Rather, I recall being urged to love my neighbor and my enemy, to seek justice and to give mercy.

Eventually the federal troops arrived; desegregation began in earnest; and the humidity of stupidity began to drop below muggy for the first time in 350 years.

 

 

 

 

230. Magical Mystery Tour

Okay, this post has nothing to do with the Beatles album of the same name, I just thought you might peek in if I baited you with art and then switched you into madness. I am currently under the influence of Pink Floyd and Cream at this very intense moment and my thoughts seem to be erupting slowly like methane bubbles rising out of the decaying detritus from the floor of an intellectual swamp and then popping onto this blank canvas you are reading. Visual flatulence… could be the name of a band from Toronto that never quite made it, like Spinal Tap. Anyway, at this morning’s Coffee Nation Summit things turned and twisted uglily (yes, I’m sayin’ that) as they normally do… five wet shower curtains in the wind on a drizzly day. Each very limited man put in his unlimited input, like PGA putters put in their putts or putzes, depending on your personal preference and people group. But put or putt or putz, no one was disputin’ Rasputin or Vladimir Putin due to Article I of the Nation’s Constipation:  no politics or religion will be broached or tolerated in Summit. Failure to comply will result in a slow, painful death by pun firing squad, which may take up to six months. [Most victims of the pun firing squad actually die of dehydration since they only drink coffee during the painful firing of the puns. They often beg for a quicker death near the end. It’s a cruel and inhumane way to die and must be carried out beyond the outer limits of the Geneva Convention in caves on the north beach of Aruba, aka Pun Island, where the pun is truly mightier than the sword.]

Joel our jovial attorney was in no hurry to get to work printing counterfeit money. He stayed quite a bit longer than normal. (I hesitate to use the word normal, since that has mental health implications that we cannot justify. We are abnormal putzes. If we had an alma mater, that would be our cheer: “We are… abnormal putzes. We are…”) He had shared his thimble of wisdom for the morning and invited us all to his summer tendonitis attorneyment. You’ve probably already guessed its name:  Thimbledon. It’s a fortnight of blindfolded barristers yelling legal citations back and forth over ankle high badminton nets followed by a round of icy mojitos on the  croquet lawn. Instead of golf carts they have summer interns push them around in wheelbarrows to avoid any possible DUI’s. This year’s theme is “Liability and Libation, A Study of Contrasts”. Most attendees will never forget last year’s rousing rendition of Pete Seeger’s “If I had a margarita, I’d hammer out justice, I’d hammer out freedom all over this land” by a young member of the local bar who chooses to remain anonymous. (It was Eddie Fickle, but you didn’t hear this from me.)

As Lance arrives, Joel says, “When I see you, I have to go.” The table reassured him that there are medications that can help with his random urinary urges. He did not protest as we offered various homeopathic remedies such as corn starch and fiber supplements to balance and help him control his aging bladder. My favorite suggestion was for him to sleep with a penny under his pillow each night to pay off the bladder fairy. With a sheepish grin he thanked us.

Big Steve regaled us with his pool maintenance tips and warned us of using outdated hoses on updated pumps. Someone could be violently hosed if the couplings did not get along. (There’s a Lady Gaga joke in their somewhere.)  And isn’t that a universal truth?  This was a natural segue into the topic of war. D.J. shared his near death experience in Iraq when a nursing mother attacked him with a squirting breast. His soldier buddy collapsed at the absurdity of it all, laughing himself into a helpless state as D.J. had a tense standoff with the milk bomber. Later he wrote it up as an encounter with an IEBD, Improvised Explosive Breast Device. “She was deadly accurate with that thing. I mean it, man. I was ready  to shoot back!” Imagine his PTSD flashbacks and nightmares. Huge zeppelins spraying laser streams of 2 % milk on him as he fights against his high count Egyptian cotton sheets and shudders, “Don’t milk taze me, bro!” It’s not funny. A simple trigger of a pool pump could throw a man back into his struggle for life in a godforsaken land of booby traps… something his recruiter completely failed to inform him about. Maybe one of the Thimbledon lawyers will take his case and together they can push wheelbarrows filled with young interns around Aruba. “Mojitos for everyone.”

Meanwhile Gene sits like a disgruntled Buddha with hemorrhoids who occasionally shouts, “Shut your face!” He gives his shots at the Nation, knowing that when he leaves he’ll be subservient to Lance’s razor at the barber shop tomorrow. ” N-N-Not to be smart, but I can’t argue with a man who’s got a razor at m-m-my neck.” He’s as meek outside of the coffee shop as he is cantankerous inside it. The Nation functions as a catalyzing poop magnet for Gene, keeping him emotionally regular from week to week.  Lance sat across from Gene and was not content until he got a blast, “Shut your pie hole, you!” This outburst led to bent over contortions of laughing.

And that leaves me. The nice thing about being a blogger or the Dictator for Life of Coffee Nation Summit is that you answer to no one except your wife. So I am under no legal or moral obligation to say what I did or did not contribute to the group… unless my wife jacks me up and makes me confess. Anyway, I remember others’ silliness far better than mine. So let it be written. Let it be sung.              The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away. Dying to take you away, take you today.

 

 

229. Summer, Glory has arrived

poppy field of poppies flowerIt finally got here, sum-sum-summertime. And how glorious these first few days of June have been– crisp, clear, perfumed with honeysuckle and fresh cut grass, and all the various trees in fragrant flower. The glacial ice of my marrow is melting unconsciously, just as it had dried and frozen in December. Tension grew in all my cold muscles and achy joints as I clenched up in the long cold months of winter. But now the days are like cream cheese and butter oozing across a toasted bagel, seeping into every pore, healing the squinty-eyed mood moles hidden within. Hold that thought, bloggums: now slather some freshly made strawberry jam all over it. Man! That is exactly what I’m talking about. The simple delights of daily desires quenched. Fire engine red poppies the size of grapefruit halves are standing proudly outside my sunroom windows facing south. No wonder opium is magical; the poppy flower in bloom is a fantasy on a tall stalk all by itself… half balloons pulling themselves high above the garden’s gravity. The fish pond waterfall  behind them gurgles out a call of nature, water music accented by the many birds that happily chirp around our yard. There’s a purple martin sipping a, well, a martini, of course. Awesome. Ohhhh, feel the mountain of tension slide off your shoulders, my tired blog miners. Summer has come like a cold draft beer to our parched senses…aaahhhh!

Glory hallelujah.No, that’s not a picture of my fish pond, but it’s close. Mine is bigger and clogged with maple helicopter pods at the moment. Who cares? It’s summertime and the living is easy. I’ll clean it before you visit. Okay?  So the sun seems to provide psychic energy all around, don’t you think? Not only does photosynthesis stir up the greenery, but something like psycho-synthesis stirs in humans throughout the summer. They get more sensually connected by spending extra time in nature. They sweat away toxins. And happiness shows up like a gold finch or a hummingbird one warm morning. You can’t help but smile at these glorious creatures and their beautiful busyness. They make frenetic two year olds look lethargic. Joy rises as surely as a poised iris in June…magically.

Just articulating these summery things causes my guts to untwist while all the little muscles in my face relax. Deep breathing feels right now and not at all forced. Inflammation deflames somehow. It’s not scientific but beatific. Feeling blessed. There’s a major difference between feeling blessed and feeling happy. Happy just happens. It’s root is hap, or luck.  Blessed implies a Blesser and a relationship; it’s no accident to be blessed or anointed. Imagine walking down the street and finding a hundred dollar bill under your shoe. That’s luck or hap. Now imagine a lovely card with a hundred dollar gift in it from a loved one. That’s a selected, intentional blessing. “I was thinking of you on your graduation, birthday, anniversary.” Naturally you react differently to these two scenarios. The expression “Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then” reflects luck or happenness. However, if you feed your beloved pot belly pig totally organic Asian red oak acorns from your sanitized hand, well, that’s a swine blessing. Don’t do this at home by the way without diapers on. And look under your shoes. See any Benjamins?Ben looks so dour in his dandy puffy pirate shirt. He could use a double shot of summer’s tonic. He needs to shed some layers, maybe shave his head bald for the season. Wax it.  Tan. Get an earring. Start surfing, Dude. Flow like David Crosby. There you go.

Just flow. “I almost cut my hair… but I didn’t and I wonder why, may be I feel like letting my freak flag fly.” Freaky!

Okay, enough non-filtering about. I have a season to paint like Monet. Hey, how about this one? It’s a beauty.Words don’t do such a painting justice anymore than words capture music, but that’s all I’ve got to offer, blogsmiths. Exotic colors explode in the light better than consonants can explode into mental concepts in one’s neocortex without hallucinogenic flares. Other parts of the brain process color and music, which is only right, far from accounting and bookkeeping functions. And that’s what summer continues to pulse out at us weary humans– colors, warmth, textures, tastes, sounds, smells and sensuality that have lain dormant since last fall. Out they come, not frozen and merely defrosted, no. It’s all fresh produce. So let the bullfrogs croak like lusty blokes. Let the crickets chirrup their little clarinets. Let the neon lightning bugs blush bashfully in humid air. Let the cicadas ge-ge-ge-get going like they da-da-da-do. Big copper moons will rise in the eastern night skies and set like fried cheese by the early morning light. Let wonder wash over us again and again.

 I fully realize that my style of writing is associative and tangential, vinelike  with a cornucopia of images at each tendril. Such growth can easily get out of control and require an editor to prune back the verbiage… come fall, perhaps, but not today. My kiwi licorice limbs are reaching out for support, clinging even to one another in their urgency to thrive before they helplessly collapse. When I was younger I didn’t even possess this much discipline and often drove my sentences into mineshafts and off cliffs while trying to capture elusive moments, feelings, and epiphanies. My artless word bouquets often drooped and decayed without direction or notice. I’m not so sure it’s any different today, I just lack the worry about others’ approval now, which is freeing. I hate having to explain myself to folks who can’t get it to begin with.

So let me finish with a big crescendo, bloggles. In the beginning was summer, and it was good and pure like childhood. And the rest of our lives are spent returning there.

 

 

 

228. thirty five years of bliss and blisters

It must be said, blog sparrows, from every hill and dale: my bride and I are celebrating 35 years of continuous, uninterrupted, matrimonious existence together this July, (next month for the calendar challenged). Let it be written; let it be done.  In our present day and age it’s approaching the nearly unimaginable that ordinary married people can survive the institution of marriage for three and a half decades. Consider this:  Jimmy Carter was president in 1979 when we wed. For political junkies that’s pre-Reagan 1 & 2, Bush the first solo, Clinton 1 & 2, Bush the second 1 & 2, and Obama 1 & 1/2. Over these decades our fearless leaders told us, “Just say no.” “Just don’t ask.” “Just don’t ask me. Ask Dick Cheney or my dad.” “Just do it but don’t tell me about it.”  But along our private path my wife and I had three kids. Two and a half foreign exchange students. A mortgage, refinanced three times. Two undergraduate degrees and two masters degrees. Four distinctly different jobs. Hair loss. Weight gain. Ten cars. Two dogs, two cats, a pile of lizards, a clutch of birds, fish, bunnies, guinea pigs, and an albino frog. Yes, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

It has not been easy. Anyone who has tried to just be a sibling or a friend for most of a life can tell you that. But add on marriage partner and parent to that load, and it’s entirely in another league, like flying a jet off an aircraft carrier is to flying a kite from a sandy beach. Complicated, scary, dangerous, thrilling, burdensome, rewarding, and much more. But we have plodded along the slow and steady path of delayed gratification. Yep. We have read books on communication and marriage, purpose and meaning, novels, psych books, and spiritual books together. We’ve listened to speakers on the radio and cd’s. Went to church together and prayed together.  Did small groups together. We did a marriage retreat or two.

Counseling helped also when it didn’t suck. Mostly it sucked, which is how I got into the business. I think my bride told me once, “You could do a better job than that.” Hey, ringing endorsement or not; I ran with it into my second career. Now that I think about it, my wife’s advice also started me in my first career of teaching. She told me I was a people person not a paper person back when I was a proofreader for a Big 8 accounting firm in D.C. She saved my eternal soul if not my mortal life. I quit the proofreading job that very day and left this note behind…

“How do you get a one-armed proofreader out of a tree? Wave at him. Goodbye.” I was home before the rush hour, unemployed but invigorated.  Rather than setting up like concrete, Life became an adventure again.

Over our forty year relationship we have argued and resolved hundreds of issues. Okay, my wife has and I later agreed with her wisdom. But it comes out to the same thing a few years down the road if you don’t overanalyze everything, alright? I have learned how not to pack a suitcase. How not to do laundry. How not to eat. As a single guy I could just throw my wrinkled clothes into any old bag and be on my way. Likewise I could wash shirts, gym shorts, socks and sneakers in the same load. No worries there. I could also wolf, gobble, slurp, gorge, smack, lick whatever I chose. Life was simple if crude, like a coyote in its natural habitat eating feral cats. Now I am more like a collie dog who occasionally sleeps on the couch but gets wheat free, all natural dog food twice daily. Domestication is not so bad. Shed no tears for me. I could be this homeless guy living on the street. Single and desperate.

I am a fairly classic extrovert married, of course, to a fairly classic introvert. I used to think this was a good thing until I recently read Quiet, by Susan Cain, which elevates the tortoise introverts to hallowed heroes and deflates extroverted hares like me to zeroes. The problem I have with her book is that it’s true and resonates through me on every page. I look over my shoulder now as I shower. It’s creepy how she seems to know my faults.  Slow, methodical approaches to problems win the day in science or buying and selling stocks, she asserts. Extroverts are impatient risk takers. Okay, true. More scholars and researchers are introverts, which makes sense, but it does not make for much of a party. Remember the Far Side cartoon scientists? There’s a dormant party looking to go viral. Just add fun and personality.  I would take offense to her claim that the 1% sexy extroverts get credit for the efforts of the 99% hard working introverts, except I have no ground to stand on there. Dang it!

My bride and I met 40 years ago. I was instantly attracted to her, but that alone is not unusual for 18 year old males who are just larger versions of mosquitoes, I’m afraid, seeking pleasing females doused in clouds of cloying pheromones. What was unusual was that she was attracted to me. My record with attracting girls was pretty weak to that point, and then I retired from that field early on. We struggled in our dating. We struggled as married partners. We struggled as parents. And somehow we survived it all. We are not 51% married and 49% other. It’s not like that. Overall, victory has its share of losses and failures. Ours is not a fantasy marriage. She still hates how I drive and I can’t stand how she drives. She has gotten better at making coffee, however.

No matter the exposition of flaws and disappointments in one another. That is just negative space that enhances all the good and great qualities that remain, like a statue that is exquisitely carved from a clumsy block of stone.  I know my wife thoroughly yet still incompletely after 40 years of intimate life. I like the wonder of love that is never exhausted or fully known. Joy-filled summer breezes still blow through our relationship, scented with honeysuckle and lilacs, roses and peonies, and promises of more years ahead. All my loving… I will give to you.