Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘humor’ Category

A Certain Artwork

My college journey detoured a few weeks into my freshman year. (Read A Certain Word, May 30, 2019.) The day after the Marat/Sade theater fiasco, I enrolled as an art major. Majoring in art seemed a natural choice as I’d been winning art awards since I was a kid.

As the University of California at Irvine was such a new campus, only a few buildings served classroom needs, and almost none could be spared for singular departments. Art classes met in a room that in two hours would be a philosophy or Latin or trigonometry class.

Still trying to get its flag posted on the university map, the college did what most schools did: invite preeminent scholars to teach for a year. In other schools, these plum seats would be open to students in advanced programs, but Irvine only had a few dozen upper classmen. None were in art, so classes taught by master artists were open to anyone quick enough to register.

That’s how I found myself in the humanities building, ready to produce ART, along with twenty or so of my favorite strangers.

Into the room strode the visiting artist, a well known sculptor whose name I cannot remember. I do recall that he admired the work of Mark Di Suvero and David Smith, two abstract expressionist sculptors whose monumental works defied gravity and altered perceptions of what modern art should be. He wasn’t my father’s Michelangelo.

Our first assignment was to go home (all art assignments began with, “Go home and make,” because there was no studio where we could work.) I still lived with my parents, and this was the only project I created at home because it used clean supplies. All other projects were crafted on campus wherever I could find a space to spread a mess.

We were to choose a geometric shape, draw it many times to fill a sheet of paper, then color the drawing. I picked an octagon, drew about eight or ten, colored some in warm shades, alternating with others in cool tones. Each octagon exhibited a graduating range of color values within its predominant hue, the overall effect visually appealing.

At the critique for the first assignment, each of us set out our drawings so the instructor could walk around and evaluate them. He reviewed with a discerning eye, finding little merit in anything. Except somehow mine stood out. He said it was the only piece that approached art.

I had created something worthy of being called approached-art? This was a better outcome than my failed theater attempt.

The next assignment was a bit of a blow. We were to use our geometric shapes to make a sculpture of toothpicks. I sensed the wisdom of the other students who’d chosen squares and triangles.

Over the trimester, my octagon was built into increasingly complex structures of cardboard, tongue depressors, wire, aluminum foil. Fragile geometric sculptures whose parts were carefully measured, cut, balanced, and glued, then brought to class for critique.

The instructor lectured about negative and positive space, shape, form, mass, line – an entire foundational art curriculum on the elements of art and principles of composition. Somehow, lesson after lesson, my work continued to shine.

Then the final assignment. We got to jettison the geometric shapes and create a sculpture of our choice, any media, any size, any shape.

Some people do well with restrictions as they help to define their focus – I was one of those. Do anything and I was at loss, especially since I had no experience of working with classic sculpture materials. I’d never carved stone, sawn wood, turned clay, welded metal, or assembled more than paper and cardboard constructions. I was a Scotch tape and Elmer’s glue artist.

This was the late 60s, hippies were half our student population, handmade candles a popular craft. I admired their fanciful wax castles of spires, turrets, and suspended bridges in riotous colors. I figured I’d build a castle – how hard could it be? A campus Deadhead gave me verbal directions. He was a bit stoned. I was not.

First thing was to procure a place to build the castle of my dreams, my parents’ home forbidden territory. Violet volunteered her campus apartment. Next I needed supplies: blocks of paraffin, a pot to melt the wax, a pie pan to pour the hot melted wax, a giant trashcan to dip the wax, and crayons in my choice of colors.

I was able to get most of these items at a grocery. Violet dragged the apartment complex trash can into her kitchen. The time was inching towards 11:00 PM as we set to work. We yanked a garden hose through the window and filled the can. Violet begged ice cubes from every nearby student and we added them to cool the water.

Now I knew nothing about wax, like how flammable it is. Nor that you should heat it over a double boiler, not in an enamel pan directly on the burner. I guess Violet didn’t know either.

Once my paraffin melted, (lucky us we hadn’t burned down the building) I tossed in my crayons of choice – two sticks of red, two of yellow. I planned to swirl them to get a marble effect. Wasn’t planning on instant blending. My red and yellow marble instantly became the single shade of a human organ – maybe a sick liver.

Remember that in the late 60s there was no such thing as an all night grocery. I couldn’t buy more supplies to start over. I was stuck with a sick color.

Next I poured the hot – and I do mean HOT – wax into the pie pan. The red metal handle of the enamel pan was nearly as hot as the wax itself. Lifting the pot without a potholder scorched my palm. I poured the wax into the pie pan, then, still without potholders, picked up the pan. Ten fingers on the edge of the pan. HOT HOT.

I plunged the hot pie pan into the trash can of cold water, hoping to witness the birth of my architectural wonder.

A significant amount of the melted wax floated to the surface, the surface being my arms. HOT HOT HOT up both my arms above my elbows. Bright red burns as good as you get after eight hours tanning on the sands of Newport Beach without the cachet of having had a really fun afternoon in a bikini. Screech-when-bending-my-elbows kind of burn.

As for my castle? No spires, no turrets, no suspended bridges. It was an amorphous clump simulating a rotting cantaloupe.  A sick-liver colored blob. Violet pulled wax off my arms.

Next morning we submitted our sculptures. How those idiots who couldn’t make anything-approaching-art for the last nine weeks came up with their final projects, I have no idea. But they had. They’d carved stone, sawn wood, turned clay, welded metal, and assembled plaster.

Our visiting preeminent sculptor walked among the artworks and talked about appreciation for modernity, an eye for whimsy, an exuberance of sinuous curve, an intuition for culture. He raved, he swooned, he praised. He nearly smiled.

Then he got to mine. My sick-liver colored wax amorphous blob. He walked around, clipboard in the crook of his arm, me looking on with my burned arms. He scowled and declared, in a solemn and dignified voice:

“There is a place in art for the truly ugly.”

The next day, I dropped out of the art department. I had to write with arms so sore I could barely hold a pen.

I couldn’t act. I couldn’t create art.

I changed my major to English

At least I could read a damn book.

 

Sculpture Despair courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Certain Word

This article isn’t exactly X-rated but it’s a little blue in the face, if you know what I mean. A bit off-color, but just a bit. You might not want Grandma to read this, and definitely should turn on the TV for the kids. Let them watch some murder show or The Bachelor.

If I’d had a lot of friends in high school, if I’d been part of any group – the soches, the athletes, the brains, the goofusses, the ASBers, even the kids one hop short of a bunk bed at juvie – I probably would have known better.

But it was not belonging, not knowing, that makes this incident possible. I was a loner and belonged nowhere. Plenty of teenage angst loomed in my corner but an absence of other teens to inform me about secret adolescent passageways kept me in the dark. I didn’t know the references, the lingo, the flippant signs of kids slipping and sliding their way to adulthood. I lacked a map, a key, a password. My fault as much as anyone’s.

There are words you learn backstage, under the bleachers, at the street corner late at night. But only if you hang with someone who will teach you. Me – I hung out in my bedroom, pretending to do homework but mostly daydreaming about when I could get out of there. Out of the bedroom, out of my parents’ home, out of high school, out of Tulieville.

College was my operative escape route and though I planned little other than landing in those academic halls, I expected to blossom into something. Anything other than the painfully shy, unattractive nobody who looked back at me from the mirror, remarking, “You ain’t nobody, kid.”

First attempt to recast my fate: I declared my major in Theater.

The university was only one year out of the mint. The administration had begged for a few willing pioneers to defect from their first colleges to attend ours, the promise of the very first undergraduate diplomas ever to be given their carrot stick reward.

I entered as a raw freshman, raw being an operative word. I’d been a thespian at my high school where we’d mounted such theatrical productions as Little Women, Ben Hur, The Night of January 16th, and George Washington Slept Here. I’d only had character parts in a few of those plays, mostly doing backstage work. You could safely bring Grandma to our plays and she wouldn’t raise a chaste eyebrow. As I said, I had little social life, not even the usual backstage fun.

At the university I intended to try out for a part in the fall play, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, written by Peter Weiss. Sure, I knew Marat/Sade, the leader of the French Revolution, the turbaned dead guy hanging out of the bathtub in Jacques-Louis David’s painting.

I didn’t know much about the play, nor about how much a brand new university would do to get itself on the academic map. Crap, I was barely 18 and hadn’t been to my first rock and roll concert, to my first anti-war protest. I’d never smoked a cigarette and hadn’t yet had s— maybe TMI here.

So I went to the tryouts. Hell, I could act, right?

This brand new university featured so few buildings that the history, science, math, and literature departments shared the two lecture halls. Barely room for French and calculus classes, but we had a theater, by gum, we had a theater, complete with backstage, ascending/descending audience tiers, a polished stage draped with velvet curtains, and an orchestra pit.

Try-out day. We pining, thirsting young actors sat in the rows. Across the stage strode our young director. He was not only a god, being the man who would select actors for the parts. He was a GOD. Young, handsome, confident, he looked as if he’d be at home on a warhorse or a surfboard, but there he stood on the stage where our fledgling Broadway careers would be launched.

Clutched in the crook of his arm was a clipboard. The uni must have handed out free clipboards to all the instructors as every professor on campus flouted their own. Mark of the chosen perhaps.

At center stage our director, clip board firmly grasped, stared into all our yellow eyes. (Yes, Mr. Sendak, mine were yellow with anticipation, at least that day.)  Then our director god made his announcement.

Were we fortunate enough to be selected for a part in this play, we would be expected to do something on stage. Something specific. Very specific.

The act is a word that begins with an M, ends with ate, and in between I’ll let you figure it out.

The actor wannabes remained quiet. At least that’s how I remember the moment. Something about that word…

I went home and looked up that three-syllable word in the dictionary and thank heaven it was an inclusive dictionary, not the elementary school tome. No, I did not yet know that word, (few friends, remember?) and yes, I had the intelligence at least to consult a dictionary rather than ask my mom.

My eyes might have remained yellow but on reading the definition, I could feel my face turn shades of red. Crimson, scarlet, burgundy, ruby, beet – what other color best describes embarrassment than red? My cheeks burned hot enough to toast s’mores.

And no, I could not do that on stage. Could barely do it … TMI.

So I went back to the university next day and changed my major.

Never saw the play.

Gotta laugh.

 

Painting The Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Balcony Scene

The banquet room was set more formally than in past years, with tablecloths and napkins. The staff at Polly’s Restaurant was always gracious to us, maybe sensing our stressful concerns. What should we choose for next year’s insurance? I liked the new arrangement, tables set in a square so everyone would be able to see everyone else. Perhaps this more genteel ambiance would calm our nerves. We always had a thousand questions at the meetings, and hearing other folks’ concerns generated conversations worth listening to.

Each year I had to determine which part D option for my mom’s Medicare plan was the best choice before committing in December for the supplementary insurance I’d sign for her. The yearly formulary was a thick enough tome to boost the youngest child to the Thanksgiving table. None of us had time nor skill to read or figure it out. Think new annual tax codes. The presenters explained the new plans’ pros and cons in understandable bites and comparative columns. I’d make a decision based on determining which health care plan would provide the lowest cost for mom’s medications, wheel chair rental, and ambulance service.

If we could not be persuaded to attend these meetings by dint of their importance to our (mom’s) health care for the next year, Polly’s sent each of us home with a fresh pie of our choice. How can you not show up for pie? Some of us came for information, some came for pie.

I was early but three gentlemen were already seated. It didn’t surprise me that they were fifteen or twenty years older than me. I was often the youngest at these meetings since I came on my mother’s behalf, not my own. By paunch and jowl and sartorial casualness, they were certainly the right demographic for the meeting.

They, however, sat gape mouthed at my entrance, too stunned even to speak. I smiled and said hello. They asked what I was doing there, my youth obviously confounding them.

“I’m here for the meeting,” I said, smug in my certainty of purpose. Only in my early sixties, I didn’t yet qualify for Medicare. They were envious of my tender years, astonished by my presence among their venerable company. I’m way too old (and married) to flirt, but their expressions demanded response. I smiled and tossed my curls. A little feminine confirmation of their masculinity couldn’t hurt.

“But we’re the Romeos,” one said.

Adorable. How can you not fall in love with a grandpa who knows Shakespeare?

“Well then I’m Juliet,” I said and rearranged the place setting so I’d have room for my notebook.

“No, we’re the Romeos,” he said, as if an explanation of their right to vote.

I looked at the three men. What could they be so worried about? I wasn’t the only person to attend these meetings on behalf of someone too frail to attend for themselves.

“Romeos,” he repeated, emphasis on the last word. “Retired Old Men Eating Out.”

The tablecloths and silverware. The square table arrangement. The recognition of circumstances. This Juliet was standing on the wrong balcony, seeking the wrong man.

How many names can we ascribe to red? Magenta, burgundy, cerise, cherry, scarlet, crimson. I didn’t have to see my face to know it blushed every shade in and out of the rainbow.

I’d come on the wrong day. My meeting was the next week.

Thank you, Romeos, for a charming ten minute date. Like many affairs it didn’t last long but I’ll always remember you. Seems I’d been looking for love in all the wrong places.

 

Painting: Romeo and Juliet Farewell by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Droog Tells a Story

Droog sprints around the campfire before the six members of the gang he hangs out with. He whistles and puffs, pounds his chest and leans over the crowd. He flashes a toothy grimace, gestures wildly. He can’t count how many folks are there but he knows by their faces and smells if one is missing. Droog is the very first human being, a creature different from the monkey hanging by his tail in the tree overhead. He isn’t threatening his gang in a power play or forcing anyone to submit to his demands. Well, not now, anyway.

Droog, you see, is telling a story. The gang he hangs with is mesmerized because they can’t wait to learn what happens next.

The monkey is used to Droog. He’s seen him before and senses when it’s time to high tail it out of there – before Droog grabs him by that long tail and slings him over the fire, making crispy monkey tenders out of him. Monkey acts from instinct and experience. Self preservation is a big deal to him. If monkey is female, she’ll protect her baby with everything she’s got. Hanging overhead of Droog and his gang is fine as long as the ground hoppers leave monkey and her crew alone.

When the big water rushes toward them, they all run – monkey and human. When the big mountain spits fire, they all run. When the giant animal with dagger teeth leaps at them, they all run. Monkey and human run from threats when instinct and experience declare their lives are imperiled. Fire mountain, flooding water, and bounding predator all plan to end their lives.

Monkey and human run and run and run. They climb and hide and cower and watch to make sure they’re safe. When the all clear bells sounds, they go back to doing what they like. Eating and mating and hanging around with each other in a safe place, pulling off ticks and fleas. Monkey and Droog are much the same in these ways. Food, sex, safety. Except this is where it ends with monkey.

Droog stepped over the threshold of humanness, one level further along the evolutionary tree. Maybe we should call it a bramble bush, given how erratically that tree spread its experimental developments. Mab, Hund, Wurf, and all the rest of the human gang do one thing that monkey never does. They tell stories.

Mab scrapes ocher from the river bank and smears it onto rocks, making images that tell stories.

Hund pounds on a dried gourd in a rhythm that quickens and ebbs, making sounds that tell stories.

Wurf hauls a stone out of the earth and carves shapes into it, making forms that tell stories.

After years of watching the very youngest children play, I noticed that all kids tell stories. Putting rocks and leaves in patterns, jabbering to plastic blocks and stuffed animals, toddling outside to hug a roly poly, they tell stories the whole time. The narrative, even if gibberish, infuses their activities with meaning. They tell stories even before they can talk or have the ability to understand the craft of storytelling, Yes, parents read to them, but even the littlest ones are compelled to tell their own stories.

Telling stories is one of the big differences between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Droog excels at retelling the run from danger. Bellies fed, sexual desire sated, and safety guaranteed for the next few minutes (even though they can’t count and have no concept of time,) the gang raptly listens and watches while Droog scrabbles, tumbles, waves his arms, wiggles his rear, spits and grunts to tell the story of the fire, the flood, the capture they all just evaded.

Monkey strips bark from the tree and chews. He’s aware of the manic nonsense Droog pulls every once in a while – he’s seen it before but can’t make anything out of all that wild gesticulation except to know that he’s safe in his tree, tail looped around a branch, eating bark. Monkey can’t figure out why Droog is cavorting in the firelight, and he can’t improvise a routine either. Monkey not only can’t tell stories – he can’t perceive when they’re being told.

The gift of free time allows monkey the luxury of hanging around the branches fluffing his neighbor’s fur. That same wealth of time grants Droog his moment of theater. The story of the chase, of the hunt, of birth and death, of visions, of the promise that it will all happen again tomorrow because it happened yesterday, and they all lived to tell about it today.

So here I am, a few evolutionary levels advanced from Droog, a few years older than the kids I observe, telling stories. One day my stories will be available in print and you’ll see they aren’t much different from Droog’s or the toddler’s. My characters run from fire, flood, and monsters with big teeth.

Sharon tells a story.

 

Prehistoric cave art image courtesy Pixabay

Promise Me Anything, Just Make It Dinner

Don’t you just love those TV cooking shows? Three-minute cooking segments between four-minute commercial breaks, promising dinner ready thirty minutes after you walk in the door, and the best part is: no clean up!

Yeah, right.

Thirty minutes as long as you planned the menu ten days ago, bought the food – all of it – last weekend, had your home concierge wash, chop, measure, and lay out in order needed every ingredient a half hour before you got home. Because if Chef Guido Cucino has a helper on his show, in the background of course, why the hell don’t you? Oh yeah – no producer, director, cameraman, or make up artist either. Sheesh, your feet stink, your back aches, and you must have ground your eyeballs into the Panko bread crumbs. Plus, the business proposal your boss needs you to take a look at tonight – it’ll only take a few minutes, a coupla notes written, after the kids go to bed. (If they go to bed.)

Thirty minutes as long as the older kid brought home the right book for her assignment. As long as the toddler doesn’t need a change of pants and will stop crying long enough for your mind to grasp what crisis requires immediate attention. All of it of course. As long as spouse doesn’t get home the same second as you so you have five minutes thinking time to yourself (but then there are the kids) so you can make a cup of coffee (me) or pour glass of wine (you?) before beginning the supportive repartee necessary to keep your relationship smoothly coasting. (Coasting would be fantastic at this moment.)

Thirty minutes as long as at least one pot is not in the dishwasher and at least four paper plates can be scrounged – that’s one Batman, one Peppa Pig, one hibiscus luau, and one Barbie (sheesh, how old is that one?) Forget the forks, can eat with our fingers, and if the thirty-minute dinner requires spoons, the whole bet is off – none clean in the house, not even plastic. As for glasses and cups – you can use the ones from last night. (Just water or juice, right?)

Thirty minutes as long as the dog is not jumping around your legs making you splash everything wet and fling everything dry, because Poochie Pie is hungry too, for crying out loud. So is the cat, the fish, the bird, and the bunny the neighbor foisted on you when she took off for a week in Maui (when is it YOUR week in Maui?) because Hopalong Rabbity is so easy to care for, you can just dump in dry pellets whenever you think of it, except it must be today because you haven’t even checked on the fuzzy tail for the last two days. (Or was it three?)

Thirty minutes as long as reality kicks in, so while the cooking show is on TV, here are three options, one of which you’ll actually manage:

  1. Call for pizza delivery, thirty minutes to your door guaranteed. Yes, the pizza shop repeats your order as soon as they pick up the phone because they know you well, and the whole family is beginning to look a little doughy, but at least in thirty minutes you will have five – count ‘em, five – minutes of chomping but otherwise silent satisfaction while everyone eats a slice or two.

 

  1. Unpack take out from the Chinese or Mexican fast food at the corner, the ones that know your standing order, and open all the cartons on the TV tables in the family room, letting everyone but the toddler dish up their favorite. Except the toddler will dish his own anyway. Five minutes of chomping while the TV blares some insipid but G-rated movie you’ve found on Hulu. Thirty minutes because it took that much to pop in and out of the joint and get the food home.

 

  1. Dish up leftovers from the chicken casserole your mom made for the family over the weekend because now that you’re out of her house, she misses you more than words can say. Well, she misses the kids and worries they never eat anything but pizza and fast food. Thirty minutes to heat each bowl in the microwave separately and carefully carry to wherever someone is eating – spouse in the lounge chair, daughter in her bedroom, you in the kitchen with the toddler who’s dripping as much as he’s ingesting. Ten minutes of chomping because Grandma made it, but at least everyone’s eating.

 

The one really honest chef in the whole world was Julia Child, bless her squeaky passion for all things French victual. When she explained how to make Boeuf Bourguignon, describing the details of slicing, searing, sautéing, and simmering, you at least had a chance to understand the labor and time commitment to get dinner on the table. So when you finally – finally – dip into this magnificent dish, you’re disappointed to realize it’s just beef stew. (Five hours after you walked in the door.)

Now why was it you didn’t get anything written today on the work-in-progress?

 

Painting Trinkender Koch, (Drinking Cook) 19th century, artist unknown

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