LOBSTER TAIL

My young brain saw the resemblance – the mud-colored crawfish skirting the shallows of Chester Creek and the bright red lobster tails on our dinner table. “Forget it,” I said, though it was clear Mom and Dad enjoyed all steps of the ritual. First broil on the same cookie sheet that birthed hundreds of Christmas cookies in winter, then crack the shell, wriggle the too-white meat out, then dip into drawn butter and I’m left to watch their joyful faces as they chew. Their palpable pleasure finally broke down my refusal, and one night I gave it a shot. It was too much work for two bites, this being the era of cocktail sized lobster tail, but the flavor and butter won me over – I liked it! I could see the disappointment on my father’s face, now having to share this rare treat with his growing boy.

To compete with my father was new to me, but probably not to him. My Mom stayed at home and applied her scientific and creative mind to my rearing. And only one of dad’s three shifts brought him home when I was not at school, and awake. After he taught me to play ping pong, his merciless pencil grip spin left me only a faint hope to lob it back over the net. There was no score keeper at that dinner table, but he knew his tail tally was going to fall from now on.

In the 1960’s, Smorgasbords were a special treat. For a fixed and reasonable price, you got to take what you wanted and eat as much as possible. Days before one visit, Dad declared his intention – to eat only lobster tails – no potatoes, no bread, and certainly no vegetables. I could not resist the siren call of variety, but Frank stayed focused. Before the wait removed the first plate of shells, he counted. Later with a buttery grin, he finally cried “Uncle,” and pushed the last plate away – twenty six lobster tails vanquished.

Fast forward 50 years and 1000’s of meals, recently diminishing in variety and enjoyment due to failing eyesight, hearing, taste and chewing ability, with back teeth gone. And now swallowing – his chart reads purees and thin liquids only.

We’ve been in the ER for hours now and I have not told him of the blood clots in his huge swollen leg and throughout his lungs. Or the new bleeding on the surface of his brain. Or that no procedures offer hope, and no commitment to vigorous physical therapy can reverse his flagging strength, balance, or raise the fog clouding his thinking. I sit with all this, and know that hospice arrangements must be made.
The alarm beeps when he bends his left arm, blocking the last IV antibiotic he’ll be allowed to have. At last I find the button to cancel it.

Out of that cinderblock silence he says, again, “I sure would like something to eat.” The doc withdrew the “nothing to eat or drink” order just after 6 PM. It’s 9:00 now, and despite repeated requests, they have not even brought a bottle of Boost. So I ask, “What would you like to eat, if you could have anything?” Those aged blue eyes clear instantly for his answer, “Lobster tail!”

Two days later, back in assisted living, I present him with a large lobster tail on a glass plate, with a small bowl of melted butter. His eyes beam like the sun. He insists on the first bite cold, without butter, as if to confirm this vision is real. Joy lights up his face, front teeth working it hard. Permission given to spit it out when the flavor is gone, he does so, like old Doublemint. I throw two big chunks in the microwave, then puree in the blender with butter. I fill a spoon, pour more butter on it, and he opens his mouth and immediately says, “Ah!” His jaws tire after four or five spoonfuls and I figure I’ll get the last chunks not yet pureed. He keeps going though, complaining that he’s not really eating this delight. I counter that he is enjoying it in the only manner left to him. He persists, and accepts the last bite as eagerly as the first, chin shiny with buttery gold. He won this round – and I silently scheme to find more ways to offer him a few more triumphs.

Feathers in the Wind

Eye drawn to gray weathered splintering wood on the railroad trestle,
as I approach I see wing feathers fluttering in the wind –
a red tailed hawk struck by a train.
I am compelled to apologize for our blunt mechanized intrusion on the freedom of the air. And to utter gratitude for magnificence, though cut short.
What does this oracle bid on the day I apply for Social Security and Medicare?
Enjoy your ability to fly while you can?
Be careful of what is coming your way?
Do you really think society still wants you?
There is beauty even in death?
I regret not plucking a feather to preserve this gift – and now must settle for words, again.

Wisps of Mind

Pleasure, even joy, can be had by the wispiest shift into appreciation of what is served to me, right now. Yes, it could be an IPA, or a red light, or a pain in my wrist, or an unexpected smile, yet perhaps there is no more encouraging bequeathal to us humans than the ability to bypass the auto-rage and find the inner smile when faced with the unexpected.

Even if the anger has risen from my gut, my mind is strong and nimble enough to not take the bait, and let the inner Malotov cocktail go unlit. Bloodstream will re-absorb the chemicals, pulse of the animal will calm – naturally, with the passage of time. Meanwhile, let us speak of our common love, and even let our souls sneak through our minds, into our tongues.

How to enjoy a Wright pilgrimage

wIt is rare when a friend asks you to join on a bucket list pilgrimage, especially one so unlikely that I never really considered going. Unlike seeing Carnival in Brazil, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house just required a day’s drive and sharing accommodations already booked. Perfect! We visited 5 FLW designs (2 by apprentices) and got to spend the night in one!

Fallingwater is jaw-dropping in so many ways – especially for 1935 – perhaps the ultimate in site-specific house design! He engineered a slide-back glass hatch to the stairs down to the creek from the main living area – I imagined the cooling breezes coming into the house. Many terraces dangle right over the creek, while the rock of the site protrudes into floors and walls of many rooms – truly organic architecture. There is even a plunge pool about 3 feet above the normal creek level. So many details support his grand vision.

w31Yes, it is way over the top for a vacation get-away for hunting and fishing(!), and monumental like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, yet given a visionary client with deep pockets, what creative artist would not push the boundaries of design language?

w5After lunch we found Cucumber Falls in nearby Ohiopyle State Park, and let Nature refresh us. The water led us down to the Youghiogheny River for a wide vista. Then a short drive to Kentuck Knob for another tour (no inside photos allowed). Also known as the Hagan House, it is a more modest plan designed for a couple who planned to live there year round – their successful dairy is still going (haganicecream.com). Wright was near the end of his life and was less iconoclastic and more accommodating to their needs, like having a decent size kitchen and ceiling heights more welcoming to the stature of their family members. I kept smiling as our guide told us of Mrs. Hagan repeatedly insisting on various practicalities she knew she needed more than Wright’s purist design. World famous architect met his match in a dairy farmer’s wife!

His plan used hexagons and their 120 degree corners, with the only two right angles inside a concession to allow the plumbers to set fixtures! All the stone was cut from their property, and the masons were father and son. It found it amazing that they did all that stonework in only two years. The son hung up his trowel after finishing and went into the used car business! When built, the Hagans had a clear view from the house to the rolling hills across a valley. Among the trees now there, I saw a tall metal tower, with an old TV antenna (early 1960’s vintage) on top. Another smile at folks watching TV in a Wright house!

When she finally sold the house, it was bought by an English lord who added modern sculptures along a trail from the house down to the visitor center. He was there with his dog during our visit (he no longer lives there, but his art and furnishings remain).

That night we enjoyed another dinner on the deck at our rented house on SanaView organic farm. The next day we left architecture behind and hung out around Ohiopyle PA (population 50) and celebrated Linda’s birthday. The falls of the Youghiogheny River have long attracted tourists and those with an eye for business. George Washington poled down this river, standing on a flat wooden raft – and called it unnavigable. w122Rafters love it these days, and bicyclists too, for the 71 mile trail converted from the railway. After a hike around a peninsula formed by an oxbow bend in the river, we had libations at a local bar. Linda decided to try something she’d never had – a Jello shot. However, they were sold out from the weekend (this was Wednesday!), so offered her a pudding shot! After dinner, her birthday pie was strawberry rhubarb from Greendance Winery, with Vidal Blanc, their wonderful white.

Our last day in SW Pennsylvania took us to Polymath Park, with 3 of Wright’s Usonian house designs – one by him and two by apprentice Peter Berndston. Our tour was bookended by wonderful refreshments at their Treetops restaurant. Everyone there seemed to embody the spirit of being a polymath – many varied skill sets across different fields.

Wright’s 1957 Duncan House is one of his few prefabricated Usonian houses to be built, and has far more storage than his more dramatic designs. His apprentice Peter Berndston designed the Balter and Blum houses. They were the only ones built here in the 1960’s, of the 24 he planned for a Wright development that did not take hold.

We stayed in the Balter house, and absorbed much of Wright’s design aesthetic by using various spots in the house as intended, with period furniture. The skylights and cantilevered sun room were highlights. w190I even built a fire in the typically large fireplace! A fittingly warm end to an eye-opening tour!

w212I now realize that he influences daily life for me and many others – he championed open floor plans, the idea of a great room, walls of windows, even the carport. His insistence on “organic architecture” was radical at the time, as was his desire for working people to enjoy living spaces tailored to their needs. Thank you and “so long,” Frank Lloyd Wright!

Blossoming Creativity

mia1 mia2There are times in attending a friends-and-family event that expectations are shattered by awesomeness. So it was with Mia Kaplan’s solo art opening at Liberty Arts, after a summer as an intern, working with their artists in so many different media – casting metal, welding, pottery, wood, sheet metal wall art, jewelry (probably should really be called body art due to its inventiveness).

Her creative approach to all the different materials was truly extraordinary, and was like witnessing an adolescent Matisse, whose dabbling in lots of media equaled most others’ mature accomplishments.

I bought a pottery coffee mug because it was the perfect small size for how I drink my morning espresso and to show my support for her budding career. While drinking from it the next morning, I began to appreciate the depth of her craft – more like an established potter who has been working for decades. Everything was in perfect proportion. The heft was neither too heavy nor too light, the lip not too delicate or too thick, the handle wide enough to grasp yet thin enough to embrace my hand. And her small incised patterns drew my eye as well as the different colors of glaze, some which she sprayed on instead of dipping.

Soon she will be back in college, and continue to unfold her talent. Will she pick one material and make it her specialty? Or will she let each medium continue to inspire her to explore that special state of mind where anything is possible? All I can say is hurray for Mia, and for the creative process wherever you find it!

BLAZE OF PASSION

25 years ago today, I woke up at the beautiful Asilomar Center on Monterey peninsula, sat up in bed and wondered if I had a birthday poem in me. This mindset was inspired by a man at the conference named Roy Jordan, who enthusiastically recited his poems at any moment, especially in the dining hall. The emergence of this poem opened a creative door I did not know I had, which still opens up sometimes – that unique, personal challenge of whether this feeling is asking me to let it flow, or wrestle it down, into words.

BK close1

BLAZE OF PASSION

I throb with the very stuff of Life,
pulse racing with the magic of the Universe.
My heart muscle tightens and releases
to ebb and flow with the miracle of now.

My eyes pierce the void with unshuttered brightness,
tossing sparks upon the tinder of my existence.
Visions of passions yet unknown
dance sinuously without a veil.

I propel myself into the fire of risk,
redefined with each hot breath.
Lungs fill with the Light of God,
exploding in spectrums of colors yet unseen.

My skin tingles with joy,
each pore grateful for the ecstasy of touch.
Ears capture the gentlest hum
of Love resounding in your heart.

Vibrations pure and soft and loud
call me out to play.
Music chameleons from sweet to strong,
ever dancing towards release.

I whirl with joy to all these tunes,
letting feet pound out
the rapture of me.

Journey with me if you dare,
sharing, blending
your unique self
as One with mine,
and let us go forth
together
to spark the infinite
with the blaze of passion.

Written 1991

Frankie on the Waterfront

“Go to the next light and make a ubie,” our Philly bred waitress explained at the end of the fireworks dinner cruise celebrating my Dad’s 92nd birthday. It must have been after he and Olga danced the Cupid Shuffle that she added the extra endearing syllable to his name. Frank had never been called Frankie in all those years, yet his youthful dancing spirit captivated and inspired so many people around our table at the head of the disco dance floor. Guys and gals one third his age in shiny club attire, some in six inch heels, swarmed our table like bees to share his spark and sweetness.
“I want to be like you when I get old.”
“You give me hope for my future.”
They only see how he jokes around, dances in his limited way – no more spins – and his twinkling blue eyes. They don’t know that he can’t read signs anymore, macular degeneration leaving a void at the center of his visual world, that his hearing aids squeal more than help him understand you, that he spends ten agonizing minutes in the restroom inserting a catheter to urinate, that climbing steps is now slow and painful, that his vertigo keeps him rocking like this boat.

Doing the Cupid Shuffle

Up on deck he was like a kid watching the fireworks burst into colors in the sky behind the Ben Franklin Bridge, his favorites the loudest booms. He was disappointed the wind carried the gunpowder smell to the Jersey side. I marvel at the transfer of his World War II experiences into fireworks joy, despite his plane returning from missions with bullet holes, despite his old infantry unit taking 80% casualties, despite riding in a Jeep lighting incendiary bombs and tossing them along a grass runway somewhere in France to show a crippled bomber where to land on a dark night.

None of us will ever know how many times his appetite for new experiences has saved his life – and still fuels his daily passion, in all senses of the word. If he is suffering he sure does not show it and he absolutely does not let it erode his daily fun. Here’s a toast to Frank, I mean Frankie!

Not like riding a bicycle

bow2It has been over 20 years since I rehaired a violin bow.  I guess that is really my first ‘retirement,” when I gleefully gave up a profession that demanded perfection beyond my mere mortal skills. Although over 3000 players were satisfied with my work, I always found flaw in each one!

So when a fellow Bulltown Strutter brought me his grandfather’s violin, I found myself offering to restore it and its bow so he could display it proudly on his wall. And because we Southerners have these nasty bugs that eat untended horsehair, I knew his bow would need to be haired with nylon hair. In effect, I came out of retirement to do this work, partly because his grand dad had really good taste in musical instruments, and partly because I could think of nobody else to do the job as I envisioned it – only repair and clean enough to preserve it so future generations can have a crack at playing it.

Talk about being resistant to going back down that path! The work on the violin went well, and I even enjoyed it, trying to imagine whether the music made with it was more fiddle tunes or Classical. But the bow! Unwilling to break open the scab of that wound, I procrastinated even as I re-gathered the tools I needed. As I fully committed to this, the Omega Rehair, I spent hours assembling the tools I needed, clearing a workbench, finding and re-installing the bow holder. And then it seemed another bunch of hours was spent walking around looking for this or that – essential tools for this next step.

Yet the stars were aligned – a supplier sent me a sample hank of the latest improved artificial bow hair, which I unbanded and hung on a nail, just like I first did in 1978 in downtown Chapel Hill. Both the wood and the metal parts of the bow cleaned up nicely, and taking it apart did not present any challenges I didn’t have a trick for! My last fetched item was white glue, good old Elmer’s, and I gently hammered in the spreader wedge and was finished!  Stray hairs were dispatched by knife, since the usual method, an alcohol lamp, melted the hair! Rosin did indeed stick to this shiny hair, and it looked pretty nice.

Official Notice – if any of you out there need rehairing for display, you better contact me soon, while all tools are nearby. Who knows what I would say in another 20 years!

Richard Blanco in Durham

Finding out that Richard Blanco was speaking for free in Durham at the Carolina Theater, I was shocked. Shocked that I was so out of touch with such cultural events that I stumbled across it in the free Durham News that hits my driveway every week. And even more shocked that the theater was packed!

I happily paid $50 to attend the reception so I could speak with him. When I sidled up, he was already talking about the similar states of music and poetry in the US now, and that he would like to see both return to more live interaction, like sitting around the campfire or in your living room. Not prepackaged technological media goods but a vital community expression of the personal and collective story. In his view, the role of an artist is to be a visionary, whose function is to persuade. A poetry reading is not a courtroom, yet still – scenes are set, stories are detailed, and one strives for the rousing finale that will leave those gathered convinced of the artistic truth just given voice, and pondering how they will let it resonate in their lives.

In his MFA program, having already received his engineering degree, Richard never recited a poem – it was always just read silently, or critiqued as a written document. I encountered the same attitude at NYU in graduate school for musicology – no need to hear or play music, just study the notation. What our world needs now are more occasions where people gather in the presence of their fellow expressive artists, who give voice to their creations in every mode they can think of – and giving all present an opportunity to respond in any way they feel moved: applause; dance; tears; or the sacred act of sitting in silence and receiving the heart and soul of their fellow citizen, shared openly.

I feel Blanco’s call to come out of my artistic closet – to not just commit my poems to ink and paper, and then upload to my blog, and share on Facebook. He is inspiring an attitude change! Find or call gatherings in my community where expression is live and fresh, and which solicits some sort of response from all attending. This is the impetus to launch the further evolvement of Players of Now – our first Expression Jam. Originally scheduled for November 14, we are postponing it into early 2014.

Hafiz Lives!

What is it about these old Sufi poets that their magic continues even today?
A conspiracy between a translator, a bookstore and poetry-loving friends blows a Tuesday evening dinner in Chapel Hill into the spirit realm.

bh1

Bhavani is a friend who loves and creates poetry, so for her birthday, I went to a bookstore and got two Ladinsky-translated books of Hafiz poems. The Gift is a collection, and A Year With Hafiz has a poem for each day of the year. Before I take The Gift into the restaurant, while appreciating a colorful sunset, I just open the book and read the first poem my eyes find. It is “I am really just a tambourine.”

Good
Poetry
Makes the universe admit a
Secret:
“I am
Really just a tambourine.
Grab hold.
Play me
Against your warm
Thigh.”

Before presenting the book to her as a gift, I read that poem. Being a percussionist, she especially likes the image of playing against her warm thigh! Then she reveals that she already has that book.  So I go back out to the car and get  A Year With Hafiz to give her instead. After a toast, she decides to read the poem for her birthday. It is the same poem!