Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brushes with Fame

I was at a blog site reading a posting about brushes with famous writers, and I started thinking about them. About brushes with fame.

When I was in grad school at Purdue, people would sit around for hours and talk about their brushes with fame. How they met James Cagney or Al Pacino or Martin Luther King. How they had slept with Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. How they were hitch-hiking and got a ride from Jim Morrison. That kind of stuff.

I haven't had many of those brushes with fame. I once ran into Tom Ewell (he was in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe) in a subway station in chicago. This was shortly before he died. He was in Chicago to do a play, and he was in the subway, staring at the wall above the third rail. He looked tired, worn, unhappy, gloomy, like an ice-cream bar that was melted and refrozen. I didn't say anything to him.

(I'm thinking that maybe not many people remember Tom Ewell. That's what fame is like.
What's Sinatra say?
You're riding high in April and then you're shot down in May.
Anyway, here's a picture of Tom Ewell to help jog your memory. He's the one next to Marilyn Monroe.)
Whenever I think about brushes with fame, I think about what Isaac Bashevis Singer said about his favorite writer Dostoevsky: "I wouldn't cross the street to talk to him."
I feel that way some times about meeting writers. There's a kind of ecstacy that I feel in reading, and when I meet the writer of what gave me that surge I don't feel that ecstasy. I'm not sure why that is, but I just don't feel it.
Maybe it's like when we get high with someone, and then later after the high starts wearing off we're standing around and wondering about what it was we were laughing at, and all we notice is that we're both wearing gray wrinkled suits.
PS: I just remembered that my daughter Lillian had an amazing brush with fame. Rosa Parks came to her class when she was at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and Lillian had lunch with her! That means I've had lunch with somebody who had lunch with Rosa Parks!
PPS: Lillian just called to ask me, "How can you write a blog about brushes with fame and not mention your most famous brush with fame?" I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Don't you remember the time you almost ran over the nobel prize winning novelist Saul Bellow?!?!?!"

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

59th Birthday Post!

Hi, I wanted to post something special for my birthday, but now that I'm going to be 59 I've starting to get lazier so I'm just going to re-cycle something I wrote when I was 54. Hope you don't mind.

It's a poem (a sonnet!) I wrote as part of a special feature in the online Culture/Arts/Literature journal The Scream on Line ( The editor Stuart Vail asked a number of writers to write about the topic "Coming of Age." I wrote a long three part poem called "1968" about what that year was like for me, and what follows is the final section of that poem.

The poem talks about what "Coming of Age" means to me. When I was younger I thought that there would be these great defining moments in my life that would transform me. Those moments would take the kid I was and put me through the whirlwind, shake me up and spit me out in a three piece suit or a scuba divers' mask, and the rest of my life I would be the person the whirlwind experience made.

What I learned was that that's not how life works for me, or for most of us. But I'm talking too much.

Here's the poem:

Coming of Age?

I'm 54 and next year will be 55
(on June 22 if you want to send flowers
or candy), and what I’ve learned about
coming of age is that we come of age
the way the great glaciers come of age.
Slowly. One year we melt a little.
The next we freeze a little. A wind
comes from no place and shines up
our northern walls. The next year
the wind is a little stronger or weaker.
We don’t change the way people in books
change. Today’s hero, tomorrow’s fool.
Our future—a patient grandmother
with a toddler in hand—comes slowly.

If you want to see the rest of the poem that that came from, it's at

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Players in the Dream, Dreamers in the Play

I read Marian Shapiro’s book of poems Players in the Dream, Dreamers in the Play on the plane flying to and from Detroit last weekend for a Polish American Historical Association meeting; and I enjoyed those poems very much.

Usually, for me, flying isn’t the best way to spend my time. I commuted by plane from Valdosta, Georgia, to Central Illinois every week for two years, and doing that kind of traveling will sour you pretty much on being in close quarters with extremely strange strangers. But don’t get me wrong, I would have taken to Marian Shapiro’s poems even if I wasn’t flying.

The voice in her poems is a calm, smart, affirmative voice. It reminds me of one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop can take the most harrowing sort of experience and see it plainly and lovingly.

I felt this throughout Marian’s book, but maybe I felt it most in her poem “Inside Looking Out”; two worlds come together suddenly in that poem, and one of the worlds is scary and threatening, but Marian’s voice and the surprise in it makes that world a puzzle and a mystery to be examined and wondered over.

Marian’s not frightened or shaken in her poems, just amazed and wondering. It's the way kids are when they meet "the strange." They want to look and consider; they want to play with the mystery and the strange things they find in it. If you’ve ever seen children looking at a chicken and wondering about it, you will know exactly what I mean.

That's the image I get most fully and most often from Marian’s fine poems, the image of someone playing with the things we don't understand or the things we fear. I don't mean “playing” in any kind of goofy way, but rather in a serious way, the way children and the best artists play with the strange gifts the world offers them.

I see this in so many of Marian’s poems, in the things she writes about and the ways she writes about them. These are poems to read over and over again, whenever we need to remind ourselves that the world's troubles and mysteries are maybe best viewed with calm and wonder and love.

Here’s Marian’s “Inside Looking Out” poem, the one I mentioned above:

Inside Looking Out

Through the slatted shutter, or
the fluttering of a pale peach curtain, I
glimpse a small white dog (poodle? terrier?) leaping,
light with freedom. The owner stands by, benignly.
Lovely day. Summer sun reflected in
puddles of last night’s shower. Laughing girls
as background music. Truck horns on an unseen
highway. Doppler of a distant freight
train. Mozart from an open window.

Who would have thought it! Sudden as
a nightmare, springing from the nowhere
of once and when, black mouth gaping, a wild
mangy creature (wolf? coyote?) wraps teeth
around dog collar as you or I might deftly
loop crochet hook into wool. Blood, cotton balls
of fur, guts, bones in slivers, shrieks and barks,
howls and the soft sound of children weeping. Is
this my dog? Was this my dog?

If you're interested in seeing more of her poems, you can click on the Amazon link to her book Players in the Dream, Dreamers in the Play. You'll find the link by scrolling down and looking on the right of the screen.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tony Calendrillo's Art

Here's a photo I took of Tony. He's in his basement, pulling a painting out to show Linda and me. It's a recent painting, part of a series on religious themes. His basement is filled with paintings and sketches and drawings and sculptures and frames he's constructing. It's quite a place. You can spend hours there looking at stuff, and hearing Tony talk about the projects he's working on or planning to work on.

I've known Tony for about 35 years now. He's an artist and my father-in-law. When I first met him, he wasn't doing much painting. He was 50 and busy with his day job as a textile stylist in New York. He designed patterns on cloth, I believe. He'd draw soft yellow roses the size of a child's hand that would be used to decorate a white table cloth, or he'd work up a herring bone pattern in different shades of brown for men's suits. That kind of stuff.

He had some of his paintings on the walls of the house he and his wife Mabel shared in Brooklyn. They were good paintings. I remember one of him, a self-portrait. He could have titled it "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Brooklyn Guy Just Back from World War II." In the painting, he's holding a palette and some brushes, and he's looking at you like he's happy to be painting a picture rather than listening to Sergeant Novak's yap about doing latrine duty or holding the line against the Nazi tanks.

Tony seems happy and confident and eager in the painting, but you know he's serious too. The eyes in the picture give him away.

He wasn't painting much when I met him. I don't know if he was painting at all. He loved to talk about painting and art, and he loved to go to museums to look at paintings and drawings, but I don't think he was painting. It was like that was all behind him, left back in the past with the mustache the young guy just back from the war was wearing in that painting.

But then he retired.

And he started painting again, and doing water colors, and drawings, and doing art stuff he never thought about doing when he was doing art stuff. He started sculpting and taking art classes and displaying his paintings in galleries and hanging out with people who loved painting and drawing as much as he does. His paintings and drawings and watercolors were on exhibit in a one-man show at the Main Library in Bridgeport, CT, this spring. They may still be up!

Here are some of his paintings that I like a lot, and a photo of him working.

That's a painting of his daughter Linda, my wife. She's about 11 or 12 years old in the painting. She remembers she was at Fire Island with her family, and her dad was on the back porch painting. She was reading a book, and he said, "Keep reading, Linda!" She can't remember much about being painted this particular time because he was always painting her.

I don't know when Tony did the above painting of the building and the bridge. I asked Linda which bridge it was that's behind and above the house, and she said, "Maybe the Brooklyn bridge or the Manhattan bridge but you should call my father and ask him." So I called him and asked which bridge it was and where the house was, and he laughed and said, "I made it all up!"
The important lesson here is that you can't really trust artists. They tend to make stuff up. I am sure that Tony at one time or another gave me very specific information about this painting. Where it was set! The year it was painted! The name of the bridge! Even the season of the year! I'm not sure whether he was making it up then, or whether he's making it up now.

Part of the reason I like this painting of the house and the bridge is because when our daughter Lillian was a kid, I mean a really small kid, she used to think that this was a painting of her mother. If you look really close above the porch on the left, there's an open window with a woman looking out. That's Linda! At least that's what Lillian thought.

This is one of Tony's Fire Island paintings. I like the softness of the boats and the vividness of the colors, the way the sand almost looks like waves. When I see this painting, I think of Edward Hopper and Salvador Dali, guys who probably never met but if they had they would have had a good time talking to Tony.

Here's a photo of Tony working.

He's reading a book of Van Gogh's letters.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Smoking Swamps, Part 9

Photos of Rain

This is a shot of the east side of the front porch, the verandah. I wanted to take a shot facing east but I didn't want to get off the porch and get wet. You can see the rain coming down off the roof at the top of the picture. Houses in our neighborhood are old, and they're built in the historical architectural style, without gutters. It's really a nice feature. When it rains in the summer we sit on the verandah, watching the rain pour off the roof. Sometimes we drink some red wine when we sit out there. If we had gutters, we wouldn't have our own waterfall.

Here's another shot of the verandah. That's the swing in the background. Linda wanted me to include a photo that gave you all an idea of the size of this porch. I don't think there's enough rain in this picture but I'll include it anyway.

This is my neighbor Irvin's water drain. Irvin runs the Fairview Inn, a very nice B & B next door. That's rain coming out of his water spigot, drain, gutter, whatever it's called.

I just realized Irvin must have gutters. Poor guy. When it stops raining tomorrow, I'll ask him if he needs help taking them down.

We're moving to the backyard now. I took about 47 photos of the backyard, the pool, the rain gauge, and all the puddles on the drive way, but my hands were shaking with excitement so most of those pictures came out looking like my hands were shaking. A couple survived. Here's one:

I just noticed that Billie Holiday is on the CD player. She's singing, "Look, how it's raining, daddy, look how it's raining, the wind keeps blowing, and look how it's raining, daddy, look how it's raining. It's raining all the time."

It's a blues song she's singing. There's sorrow and loss and enought pain for a churchful of sinners in it, and you can feel it all coming up from the bottom soul of her voice like rising water.

And I'm listening to her blues and thinking, "Today, Billie, it's a good day in Georgia," and on the CD she's singing, "Ain't the rain just beautiful, some people say."

Smoking Swamps, Part 8

Rain and more rain!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Smoking Swamps, Part 7

It rained last night.

For the first time in 3 months, rain fell here. We were sitting in the family room watching the French Open when I looked out the backdoor and saw that the deck looked wet.

"It's raining," I said to Linda, and she said, "Maybe it's still the water you sprayed on the deck earlier."

That morning, I noticed that the deck boards had started to curl up like old leather shoes and all the nails in the boards had come loose. Three months without rain had drawn most of the moisture out of those boards, and there wasn't even enough in them to keep them secured with nails to the frame of the deck. I got out the garden hose then and sprayed the deck for about 5 minutes.

That was in the morning, but now when I went to the window and looked out, it sure seemed like rain.

I opened the doors and walked out. Yep, it was rain.

It was coming down hard too. This was no weak spit or cloudly, dreamy wetness. It was rain.

Opening the door, I stepped out and felt the drops on my face and felt my T-shirt getting wet. If I were a kid, I know what I would be doing. I'd be running around the backyard shouting, "Whhheeeeeeeeeeee!" I'd be stopping for a moment to look at the fish in the pond slurpping up the big bubbles that the rain was dropping in the pond. I'd be watching the red and brown cardinals trying to shake the dust and ashes off their feathers, watching them preen all stiff feathered and happy. Then, I'd be running again, and going next door to see if Irvin, my 60-year old neighbor, was running around in his backyard too , getting wet as could be because now we could.

But I didn't. I just walked to the rain gauge nailed into the railing of the deck, and made sure it was secure in case the rain really started coming down heavy and hard in a Noah-sized old-fashioned Georgia downpour, the kind you hear about in that Gladys Knight and the Pips song. Then I went back inside to watch the always serious Nadal zoom around the red clay of that Paris tennis court like he was some kind of blue bumble bee in capri pants.

* * *

This morning I woke up early while it was still dark, and I went out on the deck. The boards were creeky and dry. I checked the rain gauge. About a tenth of an inch had fallen.

I could still smell the smoke in the air. It smelled the way a wet cigarette would smell if you brought it close to your nose and drew the smell in really deep.

In the Valdosta Daily Times this morning, there wasn't any mention of yesterday's rain.