Monday, February 4, 2013

the lottery

It was a raucous crowd in the medical records department at the best of times but louder by far after someone read from the morning paper that the Massachusetts lottery prize had reached the multi million dollar range. Nobody had won the previous night's draw so everyone who had a ticket or twelve was planning how they'd spend the money. First on everybody's list was no longer having to show up to work ever again. In the huge underground space packed with desks, work trolleys, and stack after stack of patient charts the only clear area was between my desk and those of the manager and her assistant. Early as it was the forty or so staff members were still arriving shouting questions and greetings.

Dolores, the manager, and Weena were already on their way to search the doctor's offices for missing patient charts that needed updating. Some of the docs were in the habit of keeping (and sometimes hiding) the records of people they'd been treating, so the morning ransack was an essential start to the day before the medical staff were in their offices. There was even one old pediatrician who went so far to take medical records home to hide in his garage, a situation that required Dolores and Weena to drive there every other week to get his wife to unlock his secret filing cabinets. Anyway, this wasn't one of those days and on the way out Dolores mentioned getting some work done while they were gone.

I'd been in the department for three or four months by then and my initial fears about being among that many women were mostly gone. Mostly. The first day had felt like I'd been sentenced to one of those all female prisons that were popular in the movies back then. Remember 'Reform School Girls'? In point of fact there were some aspects of the place that fitted the description fairly well. We had a girl gang - or perhaps I should just say we had a core group of very tough young women who were reputed to supply street drugs to whoever had the need and the cash. Since I wasn't a customer I can't say for sure but what was true was that you really didn't want to get on the wrong side of any of these people, the problem being it was hard to tell whether you were or not. It was certainly a fact that sometimes co-workers from our department or others would go to the car park at the end of the day only to find their cars weren't going anywhere without mechanical help.

But the subject on everyone's mind that morning was the lottery. Soon just about all were loudly chronicling what they'd do with their imaginary millions. Big houses, luxury cruises, fancy cars, unlimited clothing and jewelry budgets were enumerated in various ways as the ladies argued about the best neighborhoods for their big houses, which were the best cruise lines and destinations. 'It's not about going anywhere, it's about extravagance, stupid' was a common theme. This was especially evident when they talked about the fancy cars they'd be driving in those days when gas stations still had price wars. Cadillacs were high on many lists but the color of said luxury car only turned into another point of argument. The brouhaha kept gaining in fury as the discussion turned to clothing (designer or classic), jewelry (platinum vs. gold, diamonds vs. emeralds), furniture etc.

Dolores and Weena arrived back just then but before our manager could say anything, someone jumped up onto one of the desks, kicked off the papers and the ringing phone and yelled, 'Let me tell you what I'm gonna do with that money'.

It was Inez, the leader of the gang. Everyone was shocked into silence as she went on to say, 'I have a list of people who'd be better off dead and when I win that lottery I'm going to hire a hit man'.

Talk about a conversation stopper. Inez jumped down from the desk and walked out the door for a break with a couple of her friends. Maybe she was kidding; maybe she didn't mean any of us. Nobody was certain but a couple of people looked worried. The rest of us picked up the papers and got back to work.

Disclaimer: I never have been in the habit of buying lottery tickets. It's just looking for trouble as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, January 18, 2013

the sculpture class

Okay I've been scribbling again but while I was doing so I remembered one of the sillier things that happened during my art modeling career long ago. You may recall I was in the process of saving money for a long trip to Europe - one my parents reluctantly agreed to but wouldn't fund.

At one point I was invited to model for an introductory sculpture class that would take place as three hour sessions twice weekly for six weeks. The fee sounded pretty good so I signed on. I didn't usually accept poses determined by instructors but in this case it was necessary that it be a standing pose with my arms held close in to my body. The students worked with modeling clay over wire armatures and during the course of those weeks gradually built sculptures that looked vaguely human and female but didn't bear more than a cursory resemblance to me. By then a major reason for continuing as an artist's model was my certainty nobody would ever recognize me as having been the model.

Eventually some of the students entered the final phase of the process that would allow them to cast their work into more permanent material. The first part was to divide their figures in half lengthwise by attaching a thin two inch wide collar of clay around the outer edge. After coating the figures with vaseline to allow for easy removal later they'd flick wet plaster in tiny droplets at the clay statue to make a mold. Meanwhile, I was still posing for the benefit of slower workers. I should tell you that by this point I'd be in pain even if I accidentally slipped into the pose when I wasn't in the class. Added to the agony of the long pose I was now subjected to being pelted by stray bits of plaster - not always by accident, I suspected.

There was a rule back then that no cameras were allowed in the studio while the model was posing. One evening a student arrived with a camera. Now this wasn't one of the smaller varieties of cameras people could buy in those non-tech times, but a giant studio rig. Grinning widely, he hauled in his tripod and lights and was in the process of setting up the whole lot directly facing me. What did I do? I grabbed my robe and left the stage while everybody else told him off.

I'm happy there were no cell phones in those days, or facebook. 

cross posted from phantsythat 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

a dubious welcome

As a returning resident to Canada you need a place where the government can send your mail. If you want to get that mail you have to be in residence. You may remember that as a Catch-22 and it was the deal we faced in the summer of 2010. Ready or not, it was time to go and we needed a place to live by September 1st.

We could have flown here from Portland, OR to find an apartment but that would have been very expensive and, besides, it would have been a holiday and nobody is ever completely rational while on vacation. So we did what modern people do and googled for a decent place in an area of Halifax that looked reasonable for people who enjoy walking.

Eventually, we found Parthenon Properties*, a management company that had pictures of very nice apartments in modern buildings, and we decided to rent a 17th floor place at their newly renovated Slabhurst Tower**. The rent was higher than what were paying for our urban townhouse and the only appliances were a fridge and stove, meaning we'd have to do without the garbage disposal, microwave, dishwasher, and the washer and dryer we'd grown used to having. Parking was going to be extra as well. We figured we'd cope for a year while we looked for something nicer.

When the lease arrived in the mail we were surprised to see six extra pages listing all the items associated with our new apartment whose cost we'd have to cover if they were damaged. It was stated we'd lose our deposit for normal cleaning costs at the end of our tenancy but would be billed for the items listed:

nail hole in wall - $10 each up to 1/4 inch to replaster - landlord's discretion for repair charge for larger holes
gouge in hardwood floor - $200 per room to re-sand and polish
scratch on kitchen counter - $50 - $250
drip plates for stove - $15
broken switch plate - $25
broken light fixture - $50 - $150
cracked bathroom tile - $15
toilet seat - $50

and so forth but I'm sure you get the idea. It seemed strange but we weren't too worried as we'd never broken any of those things so I filled out the forms and sent the money - deposit and 12 post dated rent checks plus one more to guarantee a secure parking space for a year.

A few days before the end of August, when we'd finished giving away everything we weren't taking, when we'd packed and sealed our inventoried boxes, when the movers had come to pack the rest and had driven it away, we carried our bags to the car and left. One day I may write about the 4000 mile journey but not today. The moving company had given us an estimate between 10 and 30 days for delivery to our new place and, since we had to be there to sign our belongings through Customs, we didn't have time to delay. We made decent time but it was a long trip so by the time we arrived in Halifax it was already September 5th, Labor Day.

We knew the management offices would be closed but they'd promised to leave the keys to our apartment with the maintenance staff and since we were very excited to see our new home we went there straight away. After staying in hotels for 7 nights,  packing up to leave early every morning, we didn't mind that even though we had no furniture we'd have our own floor to sleep on and a 17th floor view of the Atlantic Ocean.

What we hadn't reckoned with, indeed hadn't understood at all, was that Halifax is a college town. It turns out there are 5 universities here with more than 30,000 students in need of housing every September. When we arrived at Slabhurst Tower it appeared that half that number were lining up for the elevators along with their belongings. Chaos barely describes the scene in the lobby.

Not knowing what else to do we went off to look for someone who could show us our new place. Following signs marked 'Maintenance' and 'Boiler Room' we opened doors and walked along corridors until we found a grungy little office with a very harassed man sitting at an untidy desk. After we told him who we were he dug through a great stack of papers, pulled out a file and told us to follow him.. back to the lobby where he eventually commandeered an elevator.

What more can I tell you about the apartment he showed us that the picture doesn't say? Besides the gouges in the floors, the holes in the walls, and the oven door all atwist, we gazed in shock at the glass balcony doors 6 inches beyond which was a jersey barrier and the whole thing, from floor to ceiling, enclosed by an impenetrable chain link fence. This was my Atlantic Ocean view?

The maintenance man was definitely having a busy day but even he was shocked at the condition of the apartment as he asked us if we'd like to sign the documents and take the keys or would we prefer to see the building manager the next morning. Remembering the six page itemized list, we told him to keep the keys.

Once outside in the safety of our car we started to giggle, and as we each remembered another horror the other might have missed we laughed all the harder. Finally, after wiping our eyes and blowing our noses, we went off to find a hotel and a place to have a stiff drink. Neither of us had consumed so much as a glass of beer for a decade but the occasion seemed to warrant a palliative.

An hour or two later we sat at an outdoor pub picking at french fries and sipping our glasses of Unibroue La Terrible, a beer we'd chosen for the appropriateness of its name rather than its taste, as we strategized about our meeting the next day. Surely, we imagined, the management would be as disgusted as we were over the state of the apartment and would be eager to offer reparations. Maybe they'd offer us an undamaged place. It wasn't in our best interest to not take the apartment because it had become our official Canadian address but we couldn't live in the dungeon we'd seen. We decided to see what they'd say.

Shortly after 8am the next day we were back in the lobby of Slabhurst Tower, but this time a heavy wooden door that had been locked the previous afternoon was open. We stepped from a tiled floor onto a lush gray carpet where we found ourselves in a wide hall hung with subtly lit artwork. At the far end was a grand lobby dominated by a tall reception desk whose mahogany curves were highlighted by a magnificent chandelier. The bored receptionist pointed us toward a nearby seating area where we were to wait for the busy manager. It wasn't difficult to see where the renovation money had been spent.

Looking distinctly uncomfortable about meeting us, we sat watching as the manager buzzed in and out of her glass fronted office holding muted conversations with various men in suits while pointedly ignoring our presence. Twenty minutes passed before she gave a deep sigh in our direction and told us to follow her.

Once we were all seated she opened our file and asked if we were ready to take charge of the apartment we'd rented:
'No, not in the condition it was in yesterday afternoon.'
We fixed that.
'It's impossible you fixed it since then.'
Well, we might have to do a little more later but it's ready now. Sign this and take the key.
'No, we want a place that looks like the one you advertised.'

Hearing that, she got up and left the room. A few minutes later one of the suited men entered followed by the manager and a security guard pushing a big executive chair. The man sat down in the big chair, the manager sat in her small executive chair, and the security guard leaned against the wall behind us with his arms crossed.

We spent the next ten minutes listening to a senior vice president of Parthenon Properties alternately cajole and threaten us with lawsuits. Needless to say nothing he said changed our minds. In a sense it was bizarrely amusing to watch as he shook and turned colors on his way to becoming apoplectic. That was when we got up and left.

A little later that day we asked a lawyer if we could be sued for not accepting the apartment. His only question was, 'Did you accept the keys?' When we told him 'No' he said that had been the right thing to do. Of course, we lost the deposit, the first month's rent, and a year's worth of secure parking, but the relief we felt at not having to live at Slabhurst Tower almost made up for that.

A few days later we rented another apartment and proceeded to notify everyone about our new new address. We'd found yet another temporary home.

*name changed to preserve us from lawsuit
** as above but with thanks to Randal Graves

Monday, August 22, 2011

the rider

She was eight years old and utterly smitten by her love of horses. Imagining herself perched atop a magnificent creature with mane and tail flying as they cantered over hill and dale, she clutched the two dollar bills she'd saved and approached the paddock where people were mounting up for a trail ride. The bored man who lifted her up onto the large brown horse after taking her money must have thought one of the other adults was her parent. Her toes barely touching the old wooden stirrups,  she found herself at the end of the line of riders as the gate opened.

Up until then her only experience of horse riding had been on the back of a pony who was led around a patch of fairground. Now here she was excited and somewhat terrified from her vantage point so high above the ground. She waved to her surprised parents as she rode proudly past the picnic spot where they'd been chatting with other families while the kids played. It appeared their daughter wasn't on the swings after all.

Clutching the reins tightly, she kept the horse's head high slowing his pace as they climbed the hill to the top of the trail. When they arrived at the summit the great beast decided he felt like grazing and, since a horse's head and neck are far stronger and more determined than the grip of an eight year old girl, graze he did. Meanwhile she held tightly to the pommel and saw the line of trail riders were now far in the distance and just entering some woods. About two seconds later the horse realized the same thing.

He didn't really rear up or buck like you'd see at a rodeo but what he did do was enough to unseat her. A fall can be nasty but not generally serious for a smallish child, especially if she lands on grass. However, in this case her left foot slipped through the stirrup at the moment the horse decided it was time he caught up with his friends. The trail had been ridden in the same way for years so the path was a narrow and rather deep channel that kept her head and shoulder very close to his back hooves as he galloped along. Twisting her upper body as best she could she kept out of the way long enough for one of the trail guides to have seen what was happening and race back to stop her horse.

Luckily, she was all right once she'd been helped up and dusted off. Although the guide offered to walk her back to her parents in the main picnic ground she wanted to finish the ride. He helped her back into the saddle, adjusted the stirrups to a comfortable spot, and stayed close by from then on. There were even a couple of places where they raced with each other on the way back to the stables.

An hour or so later she was back with her parents in time for ice cream.
Her mother never mentioned the state of her dress.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

tiny steps

I was probably about three when I began running away. Now don't imagine it was because I was badly treated because nothing could be less true, but right from the moment my parents removed the leash that was standard equipment in those days it was very difficult for them to keep me in one place. Of course, I don't remember much about being three any more than any of you would but there were always the stories and those vivid picture memories I've carried around since infancy.

When I was very young we lived in a little house on a street called Corporation Road in Gillingham, Kent. That's in England and the 'G' is soft. Down at the end of that street was a place known as the Strand, a big beach park on the River Medway not far from where it meets the sea. There was a huge salt water swimming pool, an ice cream shop, big boat swings, a band stand, and, best of all for me, a little steam driven train. I think it was a steam train but I may be wrong about that. I do remember the beach where I built sand castles with my father.

But I was talking about my tendency to slip away. I had no brothers or sisters, there was no television in 1949, and I was too young to know how to read. What I did have was a great deal of curiosity and a tendency to get bored with my dolls. This is one of the stories:

Our back garden had a wall and a hedge and a gate with a big lock. I must have been a very good climber.

Outside the gate was a long alley that lead straight down to the Strand. I knew my way.

I went to the little station and got on the train. I had no money but that didn't seem to matter. All the other children went home but I kept riding the train. The man driving it knew someone would come looking for me eventually. They did. I don't know if they had to pay for fifty trips around the Strand.

Times were different.

Monday, February 28, 2011

the art class

The first time I walked into an art class I arrived as the main event. The details of why in the early 1960's I'd decided to work as an artist's model are irrelevant, so I'll leave it at the fact I needed money for the plane fare to Europe and nobody was going to give it to me. College? Fine. London? No.

All it had taken to get that first job was a phone call and my mother's permission ('Well, all right if your nice friend Emma is doing it but don't tell you father').

At 17, not many people had seen me naked and, although I wasn't particularly shy,  Toronto in the early '60's was still very much locked into the '50's. It's no wonder I was a bit nervous as I walked from the streetcar stop to the converted factory where the open evening drawing class was being held. When I found the little cloakroom the models used for changing there was someone there preparing to leave. The conversation went much like this:

Her: 'So, who's your pimp?'
Me: 'I beg your pardon?'
Her: 'Who do you work for? Who got you the job?'
Me: 'Nobody. I just called the school.'
Her: 'Well, I better not see you on the corner of Jarvis and Queen later.'

Not in the least unhappy to see her flounce out, I quickly changed into the lounging outfit I'd bought a few days earlier and went out to find the classroom. I stuck close to the wall as I sidled up to the studio's back entrance and peered through at the artists who were arriving with their gear and setting up. The modeling stand, nothing but a bare platform raised about 2 feet above the floor, looked very exposed and was already surrounded by people. Late arrivals looked peevishly at those who'd appropriated a favorite position and more people kept crowding in behind.

Just as I was wondering if I could quietly slip away one of the students noticed my slinky outfit, determined I was the model, and said they were ready to start. There was no instructor so it was time for me to figure out what to do for the next three hours as I walked over to the platform. I asked the woman who'd spoken to me what the usual procedure was and was told 5 minute poses so everyone could loosen up followed by longer poses as they settled in to work on more complex drawings.

Not for the first time in my life, or for nearly the last as it's turned out, I stepped up onto the stand and wondered how the heck I got myself involved in such a strange situation. Everybody else had their clothes on and was waiting for me to remove mine so they could draw pictures of me instead of a bowl of fruit. Oh well..

Once I was unzipped and stripped, the only thing I could think to do was to act out stop motion plays and count seconds in my head between one pose and the next. After a little while I got so caught up in the imagined stories I forgot to be shy. I also learned a few things as the posing times grew longer than 5 minutes ie, don't stand on one foot, don't put your hands higher than your shoulders, and whatever else you do, don't assume that bridge position you learned last week in calisthenics class. After an hour had gone by without a break one of the students called out it was time for a rest.

I'd become quite curious about how their work was going and was eager to make a little tour of the pictures in progress. One man in particular had been working on the same drawing ever since the class had begun so I was especially interested to see what he'd been doing. By then I was feeling very comfortable in my skin and the idea that there was a big difference between looking at someone naked on a modeling stand and having them stand beside you simply didn't occur to me.

I hopped off the platform and walked up behind the artist who was still adding finishing touches to the picture he'd been busy with for over an hour. I was imagining I'd see something wonderful, perhaps a study like one by Toulouse-Lautrec or Monet. He was very focused and didn't hear my approach but when I saw his drawing had made me look like the Venus of Willendorf I must have gasped. When he turned around to see a breast staring into his face he retreated faster than the wheels of his stool would go, tipped over backwards and knocked over the easel of the artist behind him. It was kind of like dominoes.

I used those moments of confusion to slip back into my lounge suit and no more was said about the matter. I'd learned something else. Never assume you're going to like the way someone else portrays your appearance.


Between my own classes and other jobs, I continued working at that school and several others while I earned enough money to travel. Although the work was grueling, I was good at it and learned almost as much from the opposite side of the drawing board as from the charcoal to the paper side. I got a real job in London but also took classes at the Slade and the School of Art, working as a model to pay the fees and meeting lots of very interesting people. As time went by more and more students were willing to take off their clothes and mount the modeling stands. The '60's had begun.


Friday, July 16, 2010

educating Crow

Not only has Crow been around longer than any of us but he's also been quite generous in sharing his history with me. I was most surprised when he asked if I'd agree to draw some pictures and write down a story of his to share with you. How could I refuse?

You've always known me as a cultivated corvid, so it's difficult to convey just how much I've matured over the millennia since I was hatched and nursed through fledglinghood by dear Mama and Pater. They taught me as much as they could and sent me to the best schools where I learned a little geography, astronomy, calligraphy and systems theory. It was so long ago there was no such class as history.

There came a day when I grew bored with practicing the Copperplate chicken scratch font I'd been working on for days and I knew if I pulled one more quill to use as a pen, I wouldn't be able to fly for a month. From the window near my desk I could see mountains in the distance where I'd never flown. I remembered having been told a wise old bird was reputed to live in that vicinity so, just for fun, I decided to see if I could find him and see how smart he was.

It took some time to search out his aerie, but when I did I got right to the point and asked him the toughest question I could think of, 'So, old fella, what's the meaning of life?'

'Hmmm', he sighed, 'Are you sure you're prepared for the answer to your question at such a young age?'

'If you know, I think you should get on with telling me, but I'm guessing you don't have a clue', I replied. (Have I mentioned I was a callow and sharp-tongued youngster?)

With a twinkle in his beady eye he said, 'Since you're so sure you're ready, the answer to your question is that the entire world is the supreme reality and your highest Self is the same as God.'



Well, I was pretty cocky back in those days so what he'd said hadn't come as much of a surprise. I was young, healthy, could fly hundreds of miles without resting and was the smartest bloke in my class. So I decided to go out and test the theory.

While flying over the dense jungle near the sage's mountain I spotted an elephant walking purposefully along a narrow path. 'Ahah', I thought, 'Here is the perfect opportunity for me to show just how powerful I am in the world. Once I stop this perambulating pachyderm dead in his tracks everyone will come to me to learn the secret the wise old bird told me for nothing. I might even make some cash out of the deal.'

I made a perfect three point landing a couple of dozen yards ahead of its bulky bearing, and assuming a stance sure to convince him of my powers of persuasion, I opened my wings so the beast would be sure to see as well as hear me when I ordered him to halt. The ground shook beneath my feet as I smelled the warm, dusty scent of a hot monster with places to go.

'Halt!', I cried.

The jungle canopy began dancing to the pounding rhythm of massive feet that drew closer with every second and I heard a voice overhead screaming, 'Get out of the way!'

'Stop!', I shouted as the behemoth drew closer and I stood my ground with firm intent. (I had faith as well as conviction, you see.)

'GET OUT OF THE F*#KING WAY!', shrieked the mysterious voice again. It seemed to be coming from somewhere near the top of Gargantua. Was that a monkey riding the tremendous tusker? Yes! It was!

The elephant kept on coming and I knew it was time to bring all my language skills to bear if I was to arrest his progress. There was simply no way I was going to dive into the shrubbery. 'Cease! Break off! Pause! Pull up! Desist! Cool it!', I bawled.

'MOVE!!!', was the last thing I recall hearing that afternoon. There's a mammoth amount of inertia involved when an elephant lumbers along the path of his own least resistance.

Let it be sufficient to say I got flattened and we'll leave it at that.

Time passed.


Eventually, the splints were removed and so were the sutures. I was able to stay conscious for longer periods and spent much of the time idly staring at the scenery through the corbelled window arches of my room. The anger I'd cherished toward the old sage for telling me lies gradually slipped away, but I still wanted to express my disappointment and looked forward to our next meeting.

On a late afternoon not long after I'd finally been allowed out of bed, I heard a commotion from the hall outside my room; laughter and general chortling, along with the sounds of tinkling glass, led me to limp across the chamber to remind whoever was out there that in here was a recuperating patient requiring peace and quiet. Who should I see but Pater and the old sage chuckling up a storm as they juggled bottles, glasses and a large fruitcake on the other side of my door?

Still guffawing at the memory of whatever had caused their amusement, they came inside wiping their eyes and laid their burdens on a small table. Dad looked at me and snorted on his way out, leaving me flummoxed about his unusual behavior. Meanwhile, the old sage ascended the antique perch near the table and cut a small slice of cake which he held out as an offering.

'Hmpff', I thought to myself, 'Does he think a piece of my favorite dessert will gain my forgiveness of his perfidy?' Nevertheless, as I considered how to best phrase my dismay at his act of treachery toward an innocent young scholar, I took the proffered morsel and chewed (and chewed).

Finally, I gave voice to the question that had been plaguing me since I'd awoken in traction. 'You told me God is everything and I myself am one with God, so what I want to hear is your explanation about why that colossal creature was able to clobber me?'

Fixing me firmly in place with his eagle eye, he placidly replied, 'Oh yes, it's a fact that everything is God. Since that is true, why didn't you listen when God told you to get out of the way?'

I was dumbfounded. It was so simple but I'd managed to misunderstand. While I surveyed the floor in search of the socks I'd had knocked off, my ears pricked up to the distinctive chime of crystal. When I looked his way, the venerable teacher smiled softly and said, 'You're grown enough now to have a snifter of Remy Martin to wash down your fruitcake'.


I hope you've enjoyed the story Crow told when I asked him how he became a connoisseur of fine French brandy.

Monday, April 19, 2010

the voyage

It wasn't like an escape from Tibet through the high Himalayas without a yak but travel from England to North America in the early fifties wasn't without hardship of its own. In March of 1953 we traveled by train to Southhampton where we would board a ship to take us across the Atlantic. As we walked along a huge pier we saw a dozen tugboats towing a giant ship into dock. I don't remember the remarks between my parents as we watched its stately progress but it's a conversation that was recounted many times as I grew up. My mother said, 'How wonderful you found us such a beautiful ship to sail on. I know I won't be afraid in that'. To which my father replied, 'No, that's the Queen Mary and we won't be sailing on her. That's our ship just over to the left of us', and he pointed down at a little Greek liner docked nearby.

I didn't know why she was crying. I was six, a young six even for those times, and I remember standing in the doorway of our living room watching my mother cry as she finished laying out the china that had been sold along with the dining room set and all the other furniture. We were going to Canada because I was too weak to remain in England's damp climate in the post war years what with rationed food and overburdened hospitals - the ones that hadn't been bombed or burned. There were strict limits on how much immigrants could take on the ship so almost everything had to go. Even my dolls. I was allowed one but not my favorite because a neighbor had borrowed one of the others and had sewn and knitted little outfits for him. That was the one who came with us, packed away in a trunk somewhere.

We must have boarded but I have no memory of doing so. Do you remember I mentioned it was March? That's a very nasty time of year to sail the North Atlantic with its high waves, squalls and even storms blowing. The ship was small and not having the stabilizers used on modern cruise liners resulted in me not seeing my mother again until we reached the far shore. Seasickness is a very unpleasant experience. I had my own little cabin but was too ill to get out of my bunk. I have a vague memory of a stewardess bringing me a little bowl of mashed potatoes saying they would help settle my stomach. It must have worked.

Next morning my dad came to get me. He'd been in the navy for more than six years during the war and he loved ships. There was no way he was going to leave me throwing up and moaning with the mighty ocean waiting just along the companionway and up the stairs. He said the sea air would soon set me to rights. Warmly dressed and a little wobbly kneed at first I held his hand as we walked around the outer deck. I was fascinated enough by the gulls, the deck chairs, the life boats hanging near the rails, the ropes, the giant ventilators curving up from the deck and every big and little thing but my father had a destination in mind and urged me along.

He'd been making friends with the captain and the sailors too and had permission (at least I think he did) to take me on a visit to the engine room. We went through a door and down dimly lit long narrow staircases - far, far down. The throbbing noise of the engines grew louder as we went deeper into the ship. Finally we were at the last staircase and below us were dozens of men feeding boilers, turning dials, rushing back and forth as whistles blew, steam vented and bells clanged. It was pretty crazy. Meanwhile, my dad, who'd spent his navy career in just such a place, tried to tell me what everything was and how it all worked in harmony. I knew it was important to him that I understood but I was so completely boggled by the dirt, the dark, the heat and the overwhelming noise that I all I remember now is an impression of what I saw.

The trip lasted nearly eight days and was by far the longest time I'd ever spent alone with my father. Every day he'd take me by their cabin where my mother would give me a weak little wave before collapsing back into her blankets. Most of the other passengers rarely left their cabins to come on deck so my dad and I had the ship to ourselves. We visited the captain and officers on the bridge who were kind enough to let me hold the wheel until I got bored. They let me blow the foghorn too - which was okay because it was foggy that day. The dining room tables were like big trays with shallow wooden borders so your plate wouldn't slide off during heavy weather.

Everyone was supposed to participate in the lifeboat drill but dad and I were the only ones there the afternoon the sailors demonstrated their finesse at launching the things. He reminisced about riding zip lines between ships in waves much higher than these and told me about the naval battles and ships being bombed from the air. He learned how to swim from a ship in the Mediterranean when that sea was so clear you could see a mile down to the bottom. He told me most sailors don't swim because if your ship goes down there's no place to swim to. I had a feeling my mother wouldn't approve of all he told me.

There was one place we loved to go every day and that was to stand at the bow while the ship cut through the waves. Water poured through the scuppers and dad held my hand as we watched the sun set. He told me a little saying familiar to all sailors everywhere, ' They went to sea to see the world but all they saw was the sea'.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

safia chisti

Not all the stories in our lives are about us personally. How could they be? We're naturally social creatures and not the paranoid, selfish, violent beings the media likes to foist on us as a way of coercing our decisions. This is a story about a woman I knew and how her life was changed by the kindness of strangers.

In the late 1980's I was living in Providence, RI where at the advanced age of 42 - yes, the meaning of life, the universe and everything age according to Douglas Adams - I was the proud owner and driver of my very first car. It was a standard shift little red Pontiac leMans which I loved. She could fly and I was her pilot. An old friend called me one afternoon from Philadelphia and asked if I'd be able to drive a woman she knew from Providence to New York. All she told me was that I'd find the woman a very interesting travel companion for the three and a half hour journey and that the trip would involve an overnight stay. I really didn't need much convincing and agreed to pick up my mysterious passenger the following afternoon.

I met Safia Chisti at her daughter's house in North Providence, noticing nothing unusual about her as she walked down the steps from the old tenement, nothing about her that made her appear different from any other middle-aged white woman other than perhaps the scarf she wore covering her hair. We introduced ourselves and she put her little bag on the back seat, took the co-pilot position and off we went. I soon learned my friend had been correct about the lady being interesting.

Safia Chisti wasn't the name she had been born with, nor was it a name she'd gained from marrying Mr. Chisti. She'd had a normal American name which I knew once but have forgotten now. To me she was always Safia. Before circumstances saw her change her name and her life she had been the divorced mother of a grown-up married daughter and was a Providence city bus driver. She had also recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. I don't know how familiar you may be with that disease but twenty years ago there were no targeted treatments like there are now and the diagnosis was essentially a six month death sentence.

Her only option was to keep working as long as she could. One day when she stopped downtown to pick up passengers a rather nondescript man climbed on board, paid his fare then stopped and looked at her. Taking a slip of paper from an inside pocket he told her, 'You have to go here as quickly as possible. Your life depends on it.' Naturally she wondered if he was planning to hijack the bus to Worcester, MA or some other place not on her usual route but he got off the bus leaving her with the piece of paper. On it was written a very foreign sounding name and an address in Pakistan.

Well, what's a woman going to do? Most would throw away the piece of paper, forget the whole incident and just keep on with the normal routine until they couldn't get out of bed one day. Not Safia. Safia went to the post office, had a passport photograph taken, sent off the documents and bought a ticket to Islamabad. Two weeks later she was in Pakistan with the piece of paper, a sleeping bag, a suitcase and her purse. Rather than finding a hotel she showed the paper to a taxi driver who took her to a small building standing next to an unprepossessing mosque - a neighborhood place rather than one of the enormous ones. Oddly enough the man who opened the door wasn't surprised to find her standing there and better still, spoke English. He welcomed her inside for tea and sweets and a closer look both at her and the now rather worn piece of paper that had brought her to his doorstep.

He told her about a Sufi master who lived a hermit's life in the Himalayan mountain region of the country and told her that's who had sent for her. Oh my. It's hard to imagine, isn't it? She was instructed to make her way to the northern border with China and was given another paper where he'd written the instructions in English for her and Urdu for anyone she'd need to consult for help on the way. She left by bus early the following morning, a trip that lasted days and transfers to buses more and more local all the way to the region where the world's second tallest mountain stands, K-2. When there were no more buses she walked for miles, eventually climbing to the hermitage where she met the elderly man who would be her teacher for the following two years. Not only did he not speak English, he wasn't particularly happy to see her either. Through sign language he indicated that he expected her to work - which she did. Safia cleaned, carried water and wood and cooked. The teacher taught her to pray. He gave her a new name. He also taught her to speak Urdu and to read and write Arabic. After a little more than two years he told her it was time she went home.

Anyway, although we were driving to New York, our destination was in Spring Valley west of the Hudson River in the Catskills - Rip vanWinkle territory, yes, and 20 miles outside Manhattan. The Sheikh was called Tosen Baba and was a professor of mathematics at Columbia during the week. We arrived at the mosque in good time for a wonderful dinner and a chance for me to converse with some very interesting people before the evening prayers, the teachings and the group Zhikr, the remembrance of God. There's no way to describe the warmth and beauty of inclusion in a Sufi Circle and although I was, as a first time visitor, shy and reluctant to participate I was drawn into the company of the women's position at the back of the mosque. In fact, I made sure to stand behind all of them. The prayers and the music were astounding to me and, although I'm not overtly emotional, tears streamed down my face.

Safia left for her home in Philadelphia the next morning after breakfast and I went home too. The following Saturday found me back on the road to New York alone and listening to the Paris Concerts of the famous Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan she had given me as a parting gift with the admonishment that one is never supposed to dance to Qawwali music no matter how tempted one may be. Only moving the head is acceptable. So I moved my head in time to one piece after another while the driving time flew by. Unfortunately, I was so wrapped up in the music and the idea of another evening with the Sufis I missed the exit I was supposed to take from the highway and not long after found myself barreling down the Bronx Expressway on my way to the city center. It was after 5 o'clock, getting dark this autumn night and raining heavily. Not knowing what else to do I made a right turn into the huge empty parking lot of an old commuter station so I could at least stop and try to figure out how to get back to 95 and the correct exit. A car followed mine into the lot and parked next to me. When I looked over I breathed a sigh of relief to see it was a woman driving and that she was waving me to roll down the window. I don't know how in the dark and the pouring rain but she'd noticed I looked lost and was there to help. When I told her where I was supposed to be going she gave me very clear directions for the quickest way to Hwy 87 west.

Within an hour I was in the town of Spring Valley again but couldn't remember how to get to the address. Pulling up at a stop light I tried to remember landmarks Safia and I had passed the week before. Somehow everything looked very different this time and I was kicking myself for not having paid better attention. A young guy crossing the street came over to my side of the car and motioned that he wanted to talk to me. I opened the window a little way both to keep the rain out and for the old paranoid reasons (after all this was the US and not someplace safe like Pakistan) but he too asked if I was lost. It seemed I was giving signals I wasn't aware of. Anyway, I told him the address I was looking for and he told me how to get there and ran off to somewhere drier than the middle of the street.

Not long after I found the narrow drive that led up to Tosen Baba's house and the attached mosque. The rain had stopped and the clouds had blown away leaving a beautiful starry nighttime sky. People had begun arriving for Zhikr and I wondered who I'd meet and what I'd learn that night.

Going there on Saturday evenings became a regular, if infrequent, habit for several years after that and when Safia was in Providence seeing her daughter she came with me. I never did become a Sufi in spite of the appeal and eventually we moved out to the west coast. Safia lived for another five joy-filled years. She'd found what she was looking for.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

how Crow met susan

Crow here. Since I've never told you how I first encountered susan I thought today would be a good time to remedy that oversight.

One spring morning long ago in human terms, but not so very distant in mine, I happened to be flying over the green rolling hills of the southern Ontario countryside. It had been a long flight that left me feeling in need of rest, so spying a tall tree just beginning to sprout it's foliage, I took on the guise of a normal crow and prepared to land. What to my surprise should I discover beneath the tree but a little girl making dandelion garlands? She seemed to be perfectly content but it was a strange place to find a child all alone for it was a cemetery and not too far away from where she sat were rows of old headstones and a little old church in the distance.

Being too curious to maintain my usual reserve I had to ask, 'Why are you out here by yourself, child?'
Not the least surprised about being addressed by a bird she answered, 'I just got expelled from Sunday school.'
'Why was that?'
'The teacher told me since I wouldn't stop asking impossible questions and was disrupting the class I couldn't be there anymore.'
'Does that upset you?'
'No, I like it out here better.'
'What's better about out here than in there?'
'Out here I don't care about the questions I asked in there.'
'I see.'

I stayed nearby until her father drove into the lane near the church and she ran off to meet him. By then I'd taken an interest and planned to return.

The next time I saw her was winter, nearly Christmas, and a school pageant featuring a play written by her teacher had been planned and rehearsed for weeks. The expected captive audience of these events - parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins and neighbors - were all gathered to see the children perform. As I stood in the wings waiting while they donned their costumes and all was made ready on stage I found a copy of the script which appeared to be about Santa, Mrs. Santa, toy making elves and the reindeer having a boisterous adventure on their way to meet the Baby Jesus and his retinue. Forgive me for not being able to discern a more detailed plot synopsis but it was clear the writer was never going to challenge my old friend Will Shakespeare. The good thing about it was that it allowed parts for all the children of the second grade as well as their pets and some favorite toys to be on the stage at once. The audience members were checking their Brownies and flash attachments.

The curtains parted and the play began. Unfortunately, the children had only rehearsed in daytime without an audience and without the pets dressed up with bells and antlers. Chaos ensued.

Suddenly one little girl yelled, 'Stop!' and everybody went very still and looked at her. Wearing her little fairy crown and fancy dress my little susan imperiously and in no uncertain terms told the other children they were standing in the wrong places and weren't delivering the correct lines. So they all shuffled around and started over while the audience erupted in gales of laughter. Her parents, sitting near the front, tried to hide their embarrassment.

How could I not love a little girl like that? She was going to need some help.

Friday, June 19, 2009

story of 2 stones

Even though RI is known as the Ocean State public beaches are few and mostly found in areas sheltered from the full might of the Atlantic. Swimming had been a passion for me ever since I'd first taken to the little lake in front of our house in Ontario and realized I floated when I relaxed. After that it was a simple matter to learn different strokes for propelling myself through the water.

I heard of a beach in Westerly, RI far to the south of Providence and decided to check it out one Sunday afternoon. It was after 3:00 when I arrived, most of the people who'd been there earlier were either gone or leaving, so there was no trouble finding a spot for my car. Even before I climbed the white dune where the ocean breeze made wave like patterns in the sparse stalks of yellowing grass, I heard the sound of surf. It drew me on until I stood at the top spellbound by the sight that met my eyes. The grey green of the sea sparkled under a sunny blue sky, waves and white caps broke in endless succession against the bare sand.

Dropping my bag of towels and snacks, as well as my shorts and top, I walked down to the water's edge just to test how cold it might be. Not too bad. Seductive yet treacherous, the sea encouraged me to step a little further, get in a little deeper and, just as I was getting used to being wet above my knees, a giant wave that hadn't been there a moment before swept over me. I'd been sucked in, didn't know what end was up or down, all I knew was to hold my breath and trust I'd still float once it was done with me. When I surfaced I found myself far from shore and realized it had been twenty years since the days when I was a strong swimmer. I could see the beach and tiny looking stilted houses behind the dunes but no people whatever. Yet there was something that calmed my initial urge to panic and as the waves billowed I felt myself supported and held in loving embrace. I floated in a sunny green medium that was the essence of life itself.

After a period, I don't know how long, I swam in extended diagonals back to shore and sat on the sand while the sun dried me and my heartbeat harmonized with the sea. Near at hand I noticed two small egg shaped stones, they were smooth, crystalline white and appeared to be almost identical - as though they'd traveled through endless eons always together in order to meet me at that moment in time. It seemed they had a destination in their stony little minds and I was to be their means of travel. When I left I took them with me.

For years they sat in the little depression on the dashboard of my car until the day when I first saw the Pacific. We'd found a vast and empty stretch of sand facing the western ocean with a misty headland in the distance as the only break of land between us and the horizon. I took the stones and walked down past the tide-line where the water kissed the shore and left them there. That had been my job for this lifetime, moving two stones from one ocean to another. Since then I've been free.

Friday, May 1, 2009


When I was painting all the time, following the hints and flashes of inspiration that showed the next three or ten pictures or maybe just parts of another complete watercolor, there were always two things I looked forward to. The first was taking all of them out of the portfolios, where they'd been stored within a day of recognizing one more line would cause ruin, and looking at 12 or 20 all at once. Seeing where I'd spent the past year or two in imaginary worlds was always the best moment and I'd start making plans toward a gallery show, imagining the delight they'd bring to others and hopefully, enough money to allow me the peace and long silences required to stay in watercolor land.

The next best part was going to the picture framing shop where, naturally enough when I think about it, the guys who ran the place were always delighted to see me. As is normal in such places it was decorated with multiple examples of picture framing arts throughout the ages, and since my favorite store in RI had been in business for more than a century, it was an old fashioned wood floor, tin ceilinged place that offered feelings of security and harmonious gentility. Since framing for galleries meant sticking to clean lines and simplicity we'd spend the time it took deciding on the shade of white museum board mattes, whether to edge the separate pictures in gold, silver or copper frames and the benefits of regular glass compared to the non-reflective kind. Framing then wasn't as expensive as it is today but I was still happy with the professional discount and always satisfied with the result when I went to retrieve them a week or two later. The only problem then, of course, was that they were now huge, unwieldy objects.

So followed the next part. Although painting always has been a pretty intense part of my life I never really connected with the marketing side. I'd start making phone calls to the few people I knew in the New England arts scene. I tend to be pretty shy when it comes to such things but there were a few gallery owners who'd bought some of my paintings for themselves and were happy to hear I'd finished another selection. Since art shows are usually booked a year or more in advance it wasn't a surprise when I learned there were no venues currently available. One friend, having opted out of showing the work of contemporary artists, had turned her gallery into a showcase for dead nautical painters, since even if the paintings weren't good, at least they had historic value.

Two days later she called me back to say she'd met a woman who was planning to show her sculptures at the Providence Watercolor Club and required watercolors to comply with their rules. Would I be interested? I agreed with no hesitation since it was a great opportunity to have my work shown to the rich and well connected old New England society members who belonged to the place.

Accompanied by my friend I met the sculptor at her palatial home on Providence's East Side one early spring afternoon. Have you ever heard of a merry widow? This woman was the epitome of the title and having inherited her husband's factories and fortune, was using her newly gained money and power to make a frontal assault on the previously mentioned society. Her husband had not only owned a ceramics business that mostly made lamp bases but also owned one of the jewelry factories that made Providence famous in the 50's and 60's. What he hadn't let his wife do was to follow her artistic tendencies and after 45 years of marriage she felt she had no time to lose if she was going to make an impression.

What she'd done was to turn the ceramic factory into a production center for some of the ugliest lumps of hardened clay I'd never imagined seeing. She was quite proud to tell us the workers had to make these (poorly designed, acid colored giant lumps) sculptures if they wanted to keep getting their regular paychecks. Two of them were delivered and uncrated while we were there and a couple of her maids were dusting and polishing them so she could add her own unique artistic signature, namely, gluing large pieces of colored cut glass to each one in random patterns while dancing around her studio drinking from a large glass of wine. She called them her 'Dragon' sculptures and was happy to know I'd painted dragons too.

She came by to see the paintings and told me they'd make an excellent counterpoint. Just a week before the show was scheduled to open she called the friend who'd introduced us demanding I paint dragons into the pictures that had none. She'd donated $100K to the Club in order to bypass their watercolorist rule so if I couldn't comply she planned to cancel my part of the show. Well, since that was not only outrageous but impossible, I cancelled. My friend offered me a corner in her dead seascape gallery and a few of the paintings went there for a month. It was a pretty funny juxtaposition.

Late in the summer I got a call from a woman who owned a restaurant gallery in Newport wondering if I'd be interested in hanging a show for the autumn season. I'd never dined there but knew the place had a good reputation. Arriving on a beautiful sunny day I met the owner and checked out the gorgeous space, finding windows galore, even tall clerestory ones all around the dining area, linen tablecloths, antique carpets and tons of flowers. Feeling buoyantly hopeful we went back and hung the paintings a few weeks later.

My friends at work were excited about the show and had insisted on making reservations for a big dinner party on opening night. It was after 7:00 pm when we arrived, the first time I'd been there after dark. Remember I told you about the windows? Well, it turned out they only let in light during the daytime and what I hadn't noticed the other times was something that struck me immediately when I walked in that evening. The place was dark. Well, it wasn't grope around, black dark but the only lights were tiny ones high up in the ceiling and low ones at the front counter. The tables were all lit by candles that at least hid any disappointment I may have been showing.

We ate, laughed and told silly stories. The owner introduced me to the other diners who all applauded, much to my embarrassment and delight. Just before dessert the waiters brought out several dozen more candles in their little holders and my friends led a procession around the room examining each painting in turn. It was a wonderful night.