The Garden of Eden…(NRSV)

I know I’m not alone when I say that I’ve never understood the creation story in Genesis. Maybe God did create the world in seven days. That’s all fine, but I don’t get the Garden of Eden story.

My problem is that whether it’s literal, mythological, metaphorical or hallucinatory I don’t get the deal about the apple. I’m supposed to believe that God created a garden paradise, then made Adam and placed him in the garden, then fashioned Eve from one of Adam’s ribs to be his companion. So far so good – two perfect, beautiful, naked prototypes in paradise.

Then it gets a little murky; Adam and Eve get set up with everything they could possibly want – fruits, vegetables, beautiful bodies and all that good stuff. There was only one stricture; don’t eat the fruit of one tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

You know how it plays out of course; Eve chats up the snaky Trump loyalist who suggests a little forbidden fruit and Adam, poor dumb schlub that he is, falls for it. The rest is history. Really? An apple? Even Donald Trump, one of God’s dumbest creations, chose the babe with the beautiful body over the knowledge of good and evil.

It’s more than I can get my head around, so I’m proposing a rewrite, an updated version. After all, the Bible has an NRSV (New Revised Standard Version). The editors just didn’t get around to updating the Garden of Eden story. Here’s how I would tweak it; the setup is the same with the garden paradise, trees, beautiful bodies, etc. I might even throw in a beach if it’s going to be perfect. I like beaches. 

I’m taking my cues (and liberties) with Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” but in my (NRSV) story I’m going with inversion; when Eve goes high for the apple, Adam goes low for the blue agave.

Now we’re talkin’. We’ve got conflict. We’ve got a choice. We’ve got a real story. Apples vs. Agave? Cider vs. Tequila? Sin vs. Obedience? Heaven vs. Hell? Think of how happy Adam and Eve would have been; together forever in paradise, beautiful bodies, luscious fruits, and an endless supply of aged, extra anejo tequila. 

I have a long and checkered history with tequila. Among a certain group of Pan Am pilots I will always be TJ – Tequila Jack – a long scary story that involved pilots, a union strike, too much distilled agave, my head and a cement parking stanchion.

Nevertheless, God was forgiving and I survived. I am still TJ and a devoted tequila drinker. And, as if the taste and pleasure weren’t enough, M, that best of all gift givers, saw a special release in 2003 and gave me birthday bottle of Jose Cuervo de la Familia, top of the line in the Cuervo arsenal. In 1995, Cuervo introduced its artist series to celebrate the brand’s 200th anniversary and served it up in an artist designed box, each bottle numbered, dated, and sealed with wax. 

M’s 2003 gift has special significance because in those years we were going to Europe every year to ride our bikes and the 2003 box showed a bike rider.

Little did we know it would become an annual tradition and collection. We have 11 of the boxes now. Not every year but a bunch. That first purchase was $103 – crazy expensive – but this year’s was $164 – even crazier. Nevertheless, it’s been fun collecting them and drinking up the extra anejo inside.

It turns out my fame as TJ did eventually extend beyond the pilot group, and one night a couple of years ago a dinner guest of ours showed up with his own addition to the artist series and a bottle of Don Julio made to order. A perfect fit. John Bush is my dentist, ski buddy, and an amazing wood worker. Here is what he wrought and brought:

And here are three of my favorite Cuervo boxes:

I know it’s a stretch, but I’m glad Eve and the Trump surrogate snookered Adam into taking a bite of that apple. Otherwise, everything would be perfect, Adam and Eve would still be in Eden and we’d probably be drinking OJ instead of agave’s beautiful amber nectar. 

American Master…

We may all have a case of cabin fever but there is no scarcity of good books, videos, films, and music to keep us occupied while we wait for Covid-19 to be vanquished. On Sunday night M and I watched a beautifully made PBS documentary American Masters:Wyeth, chronicling the life and work of Andrew Wyeth the great American realist painter–who lived most of his life, by choice, in self-isolation. 

While taking an art history class in the 1950s, I became aware of Mr. Wyeth’s work but didn’t understand how to place it in the continuum of American art. Neither did the arts experts; realistic painting seemed old fashioned to them. But, in 1948, Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, purchased what has become Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World, for $1800 and that act helped change the art world’s perception of what “might” be modern. At the time abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and others) was the big thing in modern art and realism was out of favor and assigned to a place in art history. 

In 1968, my former wife, Abby, and I were invited to visit our friends, Harry and Diana, in New York and travel to Maine with them where his family had a summer home at Owl’s Head. This lobster fishing village had become a summer refuge for a few old New York and Boston families, and on our arrival Harry’s mother, who knew Abby was a painter, suggested in her sly way that he take us down to the General Store. It seemed odd but we were their guests and went along to see what was up. It was an old-fashioned country store that sold food, clothing, nails, and kerosene but that wasn’t the point. The proprietor knew Harry and when asked if he would take us into the family living area he agreed. We were astonished when we entered and saw three Andrew Wyeth paintings on the rough lumber walls of the family’s living room.

I couldn’t identify the paintings now. I like to think the painting of this window with curtains blowing in was one of them, because it reminds me of the living room in the old country store. It probably was not, but I love the story and how the proprietor came to own them. 

Wyeth, wife Betsy and their children spent their summers in another town, Cushing, not far from Owl’s Head, and Wyeth, then a poor artist, traded the paintings for food and supplies. I’ve added the story to my collection of six-degrees of separation experiences, and it has enhanced my interest and appreciation for this remarkable artist.

Wyeth, who died in 2009, was celebrated in 2017 with an expansive retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum on the 100th anniversary of his birth. It was a blockbuster show that included work from all periods of his career, including landscapes of the area around Chadds Ford, portraits of his German neighbors the Kuerners, sketches and paintings of black families who migrated to Chadds Ford following the Civil War, and the scandalous “Helga paintings” (more than 240 paintings of a neighbor done between 1971 and 1985) a secret he kept even from his wife, Betsy.

One more six-degrees of separation experience also involves my friend Harry. Following his divorce from Diana, he had a brief affair with a woman who was a White House intern during the Kennedy administration. There, her co-worker was Phyllis Mills who later became Jamie Wyeth’s wife. She, Phyllis, was crippled in a car accident in late 1962 and when Harry and his girlfriend went to Chadds Ford to visit Phyllis she took them around in a horse drawn carriage – her preferred means of travel.

American Masters:Wyeth gives us a comprehensive look at one of America’s best known and most unique art families. Andrew was the son of N.C. Wyeth the famous illustrator of Treasure Island and other Scribner Classics and father of Jamie, famous in his own right for carrying on the realist tradition of his father. All the Wyeth painters, father, son, and grandson were without formal art training, schooled only by their fathers who rarely left Chadds Ford and who took their subject matter from the local surroundings. Three generations living in virtual isolation at Chadds Ford PA and Cushing ME is evidence that a rich life can be lived without the stimulation of the big city, world travel, and fine dining. Look around. Andrew did and from the people he knew and ordinary surroundings he lived in he created a rich and revealing world.

What a face!

A Different Contagion…

You could have held the tight little nest in your cupped hands. The mother bird had chosen a potted cedar on our back deck for safety. We’d been out of town for a month when I discovered the bowl of fine twigs with four tiny eggs in the bottom close to the cedar’s trunk. Almost simultaneously, I understood why a group of crows is called a murder. Dozens of them were lurking in the trees behind me, as intent on living up to their collective name as I was in keeping them at bay. War was in the air.

Determined to protect it, I rotated the cedar and moved the pot closer to the house. I checked the nest as often as I could and watched as the mother flitted in and out – never away for long. As the week went on, whenever I showed up the crows squawked loudly, hopping from branch to branch, and preparing to attack.

Three days later, on Monday, two of the eggs were broken and empty. The crows were menacing, poised for more action. By Friday only fragments of cracked eggshells remained, but the war wasn’t over. Each time I stepped out on the deck the crows swarmed and cawed aggressively. They made aerial passes. and when I left the house by the front door they followed me and continued their swooping attacks. 

A month later, they were still following me as I crossed the parking lot on my way to the pool, pitching and plummeting in near miss passes that had me ducking. When I got to the pool gate and discovered I had left the key behind, they followed me back.

That was the day they identified my car, my black Jeep Cherokee, and that night, as I slept, the black bombers dropped more than 30 gobs of crow shit on the hood and windshield. Bad blood. Bad juju. You killed my unborn chicks. Fucked with me. Fucked with my car. This is war.

I bought two books about crows and watched a two-part documentary on YouTube, but the message was clear, Jack, you’ll never win this war. Crows are too smart, too crafty, and endowed with the uncanny ability to recognize and retain facial features. Nature’s facial recognition software. I told myself it was time to get over it. Not easy. I hate to lose.

This was all before Covid-19. Back then I had an enemy I could see and hear, but I can’t go out on the deck and swing a broom at Covid-19. It’s invisible…and much more deadly than the crows.

It took almost a year to escape the wrath of the crows and their dive bombing raids. They, like Donald Trump, have long memories and like him they’re vengeful. Neither Trump nor the crows ever forget a slight. I fought the crows for a year, but I’ve been fighting Donald Trump for almost four.

We have to know the enemy, be patient, trust the scientists, and follow their instructions. If do those things, and marshal our resources, develop a plan, and assign a capable leader to the task, we can conquer the Covid-19 contagion. And if we listen to our better angels and get out the vote in November we should be able to stop Donald Trump and his team of ignoramuses from dumping on us?

No Smell, No Taste…

Granny

My restless brain is in overdrive search now that I have all this time and nowhere to go, so when I heard that one of the symptoms of Covid-19 was the loss of smell and taste, I free associated back to a bar of the same name (No Smell No Taste) in the West African country of Liberia. As Jerry Jeff Walker said about going to jail “I wasn’t there on a research project.” No Smell No Taste was a shanty bar, part wood, part corrugated tin, dirt floor on the road from the airport at Roberts Field to the capital, Monrovia. Big fun. Heineken beer preserved and fortified with formaldehyde (not unlike Trump’s injection of disinfectant) and a favored watering spot for Pan Am crew members. But, that’s another story.

Next in my Covid-19 free association ramble brought me closer to home. One of my grandsons came up short in the no smell no taste department last month. He’s fine now but it’s likely he had the virus though he was never tested. Thank you, Donald, for doing such a great job with that. But, that’s another story too.

Here’s the story I want to tell you about smell:

I come from a small family. My father was the youngest in his family by 13 years, and my mother and I are both only children. We never lived close to any of the extended family, but I remember my Granny well from the times we did visit. She was the matriarch in a patriarchal family, a farm wife in the hardscrabble world of Depression-era farming. She died before I got to know her well, but I remember how she would wrap me in her soft, wrinkly arms and pull me onto her generous capacious lap. I was her youngest and last grandchild. She loved me and her embrace enveloped me, but her smell was off-putting – one I associated with old people. 

Moving on; my father had his own set of smells. He was 75 when he died and though I didn’t think of him as an old man in his last years there was smell about him too. I remember opening the closet door to hang my coat and being overwhelmed by the pungent mixture of old age and cigarettes. Mind you, this was the closet where his business suits hung, but people didn’t launder or dry clean their clothes as often then as they do now. There was always this aroma that went with my father. It came from the combination of contributing elements. He smoked—a lot. It’s what killed him. Regardless, to this day, I remember the whiff of body odor and cigarettes that met me as I opened his closet door. 

I was reminded of those family smells last fall when the New York Times ran an article entitled, Do Older People Have a Different Smell? The study was inconclusive. The jury, they said, was still out, but I come down hard on the “yes” side of the question. You might see where this is going. The “family” smell and my age have combined to give me a heightened sensitivity to the “scent” of old age. I hate the idea I’m giving off an offensive odor. I picture an old cartoon figure surrounded by a cloud with wavy lines emanating and people backing away. Yuck.

Because of that and the fact that I’m OCD, I shower with the vigor and compulsiveness of Lady Macbeth then shave and add a dollop of Bath and Body Works Orange-Ginger Aromatherapy lotion to my face. I could swear my sweat never had an odor, but now, in the age of coronavirus, I’m not sure. I mention coronavirus only because I live so differently as its captive. I’m disciplined and regimented, but except for every other day bike rides I get almost no exercise…yet, every morning I wonder if there’s a hint of odor as I head for the shower. Paranoia? The power of suggestion? Or is it true? No way am I going to smell like an old man…even if I am one. The derivative etymology of scent is the same as that of senescence or the gradual deterioration of the organism – of growing old, and after reading the Times article, I think the scent I associate with my grandmother’s embrace and my father’s closet probably WAS due to their senescence.

My wife is appalled and astonished at my choice of subject matter. “You can’t write about BO.” Why not, I ask? I’m exploring life’s continuum. What are we like at different stages? “You’ll embarrass me,” she says. “It’s not about you,” I say, as she leaves the room in disgust. “You might mention the after-dinner grease spots on your shirts while you’re at it.” That’s her thing. Smells are mine. Spots are hers. She’s a consultant to senior health care facilities and tells me all the time that one thing you can count on with old guys in retirement homes is that they are covered with spots. Spaghetti sauce. Olive oil. Ice cream. Drool. All the things that make life worthwhile. Nevertheless, since I’m incarcerated and under her care, Nurse Ratched makes me change shirts after dinner if I’ve dripped. It’s a power thing…and a laundry thing. She loves the washing machine and folding clothes is her meditation, so I do what I can to keep her happy.

It looks like eternal vigilance is the price of a fragrance-free body, and I will continue to bathe daily and support Bath and Body Works to make it so. It’s my hope that senescence will stay socially distant while I try to do better with the spaghetti sauce. Here’s hoping the smells I associate with Granny and my Dad are anomaly not family legacy.

Stay healthy. Wash your hands. Smell the flowers. And, love your family and friends.

Sliding Tiles and Memory…

With the dual contagions of Clovid-19 and Donald Trump in the air, I’ve been looking for an escape from the news cycle. It’s exhausting, but after combing the Netflix, Amazon Video, and Audible libraries while rereading The Plague, The Andromeda Strain, and Love in the Time of Cholera I think the solution is to go back to work. Writing as therapy.

Most writers carry a notebook where they jot down snippets of dialogue or the elements of a scene, so they have material for a story or article, but I was always a lousy notetaker. Back in college, when I was studying for an exam, I had a hard time making sense of my notes. Nothing stood out. I’d look at them and see nothing but “the” or “and” as if they were the important facts in a lecture. I was hopeless. It didn’t take long to learn I’m an oral and visual learner which is why I love the iPhone camera and why I never wanted to miss a class lecture.

Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook is fascinating and full of conjecture on how and why notes are important and how details inform memory. But notebooks still don’t work for me. I have dozens of them, but they’ve never been an important part of my toolkit.

To be clear, even though I wasn’t a good notetaker I hated cameras. I felt ripped off buying film, threading it on the spool, and dealing with f-stops, apertures and focal lengths before taking twenty-seven pictures that cost a fortune to develop, but only two which I wanted to keep.

My Dad gave me an Argus C3 SLR when I graduated from college. It was his camera and I think he passed it to me because he hated to take pictures too. I used it once or twice but gave it away the night before my first trip to Europe. I didn’t want anything getting between me and the world. I didn’t regret the decision then, but there are long gaps where the only record I have are pictures friends took and shared with me. 

I still have no regrets, but there were some incredible experiences over the years that I have no visual record of. Nepal. Africa. Greece. Turkey. Jerusalem. Damascus. Japan. Thailand. So many memorable locations and encounters with barely a picture until the iPhone came along. I love it.

All this is to say, the combination of the iPhone camera and the computer is like having a high-quality visual notebook. I write a weekly blog and am working on a book of essays, and in the writing process I often go to iPhoto to retrieve a picture or just to refresh my memory.

One of the things I love about my MacBook is the Desktop/Screensaver set of options. Both draw from my collection of 7864 photos. The Desktop picture changes every minute and the Screensaver feature, called Shifting Tiles presents in a random shuffle collage adding or subtracting tile photos every few seconds. Yesterday, M and I sat in my office and watched the shifting tiles as they presented elements of our lives over the last 10 or 20 years. 

The two pictures in this post are of two different screenshots showing pieces of our lives in different venues. The photo above includes shots from:

  • Inside the Pantheon in Rome
  • A café courtyard on Sardinia
  • The inner workings at the Tillamook Cheese Factory
  • A girl selling coconuts on Dong Khoi Street in Saigon
  • The interior of Galeries Lafayette in Paris
  • M’s courtyard with strawberry tree
  • A beach market in the Florida Panhandle

I wish I was a better notetaker. I’m sure it would make me a better writer. I’m not good at retaining dialogue, which is useful in relaying information and sources. On the other hand, with 7000+ photos to refresh my memory I don’t have to remember details in scenes I’m describing. The detail, the colors, the people, the scene itself is there to draw on. I wish I had pictures from my weeks on Crete or roaming the gold souk in Beirut or the back streets of old Jerusalem. I can refresh my memory by looking at other photos and reading other writers words, but they don’t pack the same punch as a photo I’ve taken at the scene or a story I’ve written.

This sliding tiles screenshot shows snapshots of:

  • Our trip up the Mekong from Vietnam to Cambodia
  • Biking along the road in Moab, Utah
  • A pre-Raphaelite painting from the show at SAM
  • M at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston
  • Mutt Mitts in Tucson
  • The Guggenheim Museum during the Picasso exhibit
  • A mystery collage
  • A Tucson taco bar

Each tile has a story that goes with it. Remember when people kept scrapbooks? This is so much more immediate and the digital photos don’t fade and curl up. It gives me more than a notebook ever could though I admire the writers that keep them. These sliding tiles tell stories of people and places that have enriched our lives and seeing them flash by takes us back to the prime experience.