The Big Trip: Hitting bottom and rebounding…artfully ~

Mini splash park, Pearl Street mall, Boulder, Colorado

Mini splash park, Pearl Street mall, Boulder, Colorado

Rag-dog street performer, Pearl St Mall, Boulder, Colorado

Rag-dog street performer, Pearl St Mall, Boulder, Colorado

Painted piano, Fort Collins, Colorado

Painted piano, Fort Collins, Colorado

Alley mural, Old Town, Fort Collins, Colorado

Alley mural, Old Town, Fort Collins, Colorado

CSU trial gardens, Fort Collins, Colorado

CSU trial gardens, Fort Collins, Colorado

Detail, painted electrical box, Old Town, Fort Collins, Colorado

Detail, painted electrical box, Old Town, Fort Collins, Colorado

Days 7-11:  Boulder, Loveland, Fort Collins.

After my day recuperating in Fort Morgan, I headed toward Fort Collins but found that I would get there by mid-morning on a Sunday. So I detoured down to Boulder first, where I spent far too much time and money at the Pearl Street mall. It was a recapitulation of sorts: I went to exactly the same shops as when David and I were there, and I got a veggie panini at the same place we’d eaten. I was disappointed to see that the contortionist who folded himself into various containers, such as a little, clear plastic box, was no longer among the street performers. I wanted to donate to all of the performers, but my cash is dwindling alarmingly fast. I didn’t stay to watch the torch-juggler act, and I didn’t tip the guitarists or the accordion player, and I arrived too late to see a very popular act involving a performer balancing atop a tower of chairs, and I walked past an older gentleman in cowboy garb painted to look like a copper statue, and I skirted the guy in an African-type mask who was playing the bongo drums, and I felt terrible that I wasn’t leaving money for any of them, but there were just so many.

Eventually I sat down near one of the street performers to drink a lemonade and rest my aching feet. This particular guy—I believe it was a guy, though his act was mute—was impersonating a sort of ragdoll dog. His costume was made of tiers of short, pastel-colored pieces of fabric, so he could shake like a puli. He sat like a dog and looked hopefully at passersby. He’d try to attract children by getting up on all fours, or rolling on the ground. A couple of women with a little boy were taking pictures of him, but not leaving any money. That isn’t nice, I thought. I approached the performer and, looking over at the little boy, said, “I think this dog wants a belly rub, don’t you?” The “dog” promptly rolled onto his back. I reached down and rubbed his belly and he made some appreciative doggie-like grunts. “And maybe some scratching around this ear,” I said, still looking at the little group. I scratched one of his “ears” and he pumped one of his legs the way dogs often do when you’ve hit the right spot and they’re just loving it. “See?” I said. “I made him kick his leg.”

I dropped a couple of bucks into the performer’s bowl and then realized that a number of people had stopped to watch this joint act. In one last attempt to get this endearing performer some tips, I put out my hand, and said, “Shake?” He lifted an enormous foot so I could touch the bottom of it. It was more like a fist bump. Still no action from anyone in the crowd. It was a hot day and the street performer must have been terribly uncomfortable underneath his shaggy costume. I felt like whispering to him, “Well, I tried,” but I wasn’t sure if he could hear a whisper inside the doggie head he was wearing, so I just walked away. Ineffectual! Alas.

On the plus side, I was thrilled to see that the problems I’d had with the altitude in 2012 were gone. Three years ago, I’d walk a few feet, then have to rest. Walk a few more feet, then have to rest. Sit down repeatedly. Lean on David’s arm. This time around, I could walk without resting. The iron infusions clearly get credited for this improvement. I sat down only because my feet and legs began to ache almost unbearably. I haven’t built up my endurance very much yet, and they’re not used to this much walking. Added to that stress was driving much of the day without cruise control (I was on a variety of roads, from city streets to the interstate, and the traffic was very heavy everywhere).

In Fort Collins, I was forced to take yet another rest day on Monday. This time I didn’t even leave the motel. I am frightened of my debilitation and I am ashamed of being frightened. I know why I’m here and at the same time I feel I’ve lost sight of why I’m here. I’m reading a book where a man is being “reprocessed,” via amnesia-inducing injections, over and over; we don’t yet know why. Now he has been reprocessed to the point where he has no ambition or autonomy beyond his basic daily functioning, and he will be left to live the rest of his life in the “reprocessing village” (one of many) because he is considered cured. I.e., he no longer poses a threat. To what or whom, we don’t yet know. (To himself, it turns out; the book is called “A Cure for Suicide,” and the cure involves losing all the complexities and nuances and worries of life. I can divulge this because no one ever reads books that I recommend.)

Probably I should not be reading this book right now. It is beginning to affect me strongly. I think that I am like this man, not living a meaningful life. I worry that I’m breaking down, and that would constitute a great failure in my eyes. My sister suggested something I’d already thought of, that I could fly back home and that there are people who will drive your car back for you. But how do you know whom to trust? I would start driving back tonight; since I’ve slept all day I’m confident I could drive all night if it weren’t for the fact that my legs are swollen and hurt very much.

———–

After this, I didn’t do any more writing during the trip, so I’ll sum things up briefly. On Tuesday I felt well enough to continue. I toured three independent-living facilities for my sister, two in Loveland and one in Fort Collins. Then, during a phone conversation with her that evening, I discovered that she didn’t want to live in the Fort Collins/Loveland area, she only wanted to live in Denver, and not in an independent-living facility. This would have been nice to know before I left Carbondale. I was completely open with her about my ideas and my agenda, so I was simultaneously vexed and confused. The trip now seems to have been misguided and misfocused. I considered heading to Denver for the next three days, then realized that Denver would involve a lot of upfront Internet research in order to focus a search. In addition, everyone I’ve talked to has told me that Denver is much more expensive than Fort Collins. Finally, I realized that my energy and navigational savvy simply didn’t extend to a big metro area like Denver on this particular road trip. So I decided to treat the rest of the journey as a vacation.

On Wednesday I met up with my friend David M., dedicated Marlovian and self-described “world’s oldest white rapper.” We stopped by Colorado State University’s trial gardens, where new varieties of garden flowers are being tested, on the way to the big Campbell’s soup can replica that CSU art students constructed to Andy Warhol’s specs and that he signed on a trip to Fort Collins. Dave kept mentioning some black-and-white photos in a gallery that he wanted me to see. Turns out that the gallery was the Center for Fine Art Photography, one of the very places I’d hoped to visit in Fort Collins. Although we arrived just at closing time, one of the curators kindly gave us a personal tour. Then it was on to an Italian restaurant and a quick drive west of the city and up a steep, winding ridge to Horsetooth Reservoir in an attempt to catch the sunset. We were a little late, but the view was beautiful nonetheless.

The arts scene seems to be thriving in Fort Collins and also in Loveland, just to the south. Public sculpture abounds in both cities. Both have taken to painting those big electrical boxes you see all over the place in fanciful, colorful designs, turning them from eyesores into attractions. Fort Collins also paints old pianos with whimsical scenes and leaves them in public places—even alleyways–for anyone to play. In one of the photos above, Dave is trying to talk me into playing the piano so he can get a video of it. So great is my performance anxiety that when I finally sat down, I began “House of the Rising Sun” in the wrong key and never did get straightened out. (Dave, I hope you’ve deleted that video.)

On Thursday I broke my new “vacation-only” rule in order to tour one more facility in Fort Collins, in the interest of doing a reasonably thorough job of what I’d come more than a thousand miles to do, and then toured an apartment complex just across the street. Afterwards, I headed for Estes Park, where I’ll pick this up in the next installment. The writing will get shorter from now on; I promise. We’re on the home stretch.

Advertisements

Steve ~

Note: This is a very long post, but for me it is a necessary tribute and a necessary corollary to an earlier post. A handful of Facebook friends will have read parts of this essay on the FB memorial page I set up for Steve.

In my post Into the Confessional I talked about the death of my second husband from alcoholism and my responsibility for his death. But “alcoholic” carries such profoundly negative connotations that it obscures the person who suffers from the disease. I would hate for anyone to think “Steve = alcoholic.” He was smart, funny, creative, nice—and a true original who had more peccadillos than an armadillo (one of our favorite animals). I’ve never known anyone like him.

Steve was the type of person who always stopped for road-crossing turtles and moved them where they were going, no matter how much peril this entailed for our own car. He loved animals, all animals. In his last few years he became a vegetarian, a choice that perplexed his parents and took them about three years to accept. He had a multi-volume animal encyclopedia that he often browsed through, and he’d frequently show me a picture of something like a naked mole rat or a fennec and insist, “I need one!” I liked the animals he showed me too, but I had to tell him no, which made him pout.

Steve, age 32

Steve, age 32

In the early 1980s Steve co-managed a used-record store in St. Louis and then one here in Carbondale. He was an expert on rock, jazz, and avant-garde classical music in particular. As a young man, he worked for a time as a janitor; with a St. Louis friend, he recorded three albums under the name The Janitors. He came to believe that Bach’s cantatas were the most sublime music ever written, but he also loved the Beatles with almost equal passion.

Most people seemed to recognize right away that Steve was a good-hearted person. Here was one act of generosity: Once when he was at the vet’s with our dog Sammy, a young client discovered she had no money to pay her bill. Steve offered to cover the charges. Our vet didn’t let him, but she often speaks of that gesture. On the other hand, Steve was capable of crimes against humanity, or at least music browsers. He was fond of telling me about the time at the St. Louis record store when he played Yoko Ono’s screechiest LP at top volume for 12 hours straight. Apparently not too many people browsed the bins on that day. It’s a wonder the store stayed in business, but it did well with Steve in charge.

Taken together, these two anecdotes epitomize the fact that Steve was a paradox. He was kind to people, yet he generally didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought about his actions. Nor did he mind making people feel uncomfortable or even driving them temporarily insane. In music, he had a tremendous capacity for loudness, dissonance, and the avant-garde. In his personal life, it was just the opposite. The modern world was too “noisy” for him—too many aggravations, impediments, hassles, and impositions for him to easily endure. He frequently said that he was born a few centuries too late.

He could never have been married to a normal, talkative, high-energy person. Whenever I became somewhat animated or enthusiastic in conversation, he accused me of “fizzing and popping.” I’m not sure if I ever pointed out that many of his LPs consisted largely of fizzing and popping, but he knew there were certain ones that he could play at top volume only when I was out of the house. These LPs stressed me out, but Steve enjoyed them and I think they helped him cope with stress.

Steve also used The Weather Channel as a calming agent—this in the days before the endless sensationalistic series it now favors. Often The Weather Channel was on at our house for hours, yet neither of us ever seemed to know the forecast. One morning we blearily watched the “Local on the 8s,” then looked at each other and said in unison, “Did you catch that?”

Steve was not materialistic. He bought used books and used records and little else. Eventually he did start amassing a CD collection, which burgeoned when he began an endeavor to Acquire Every Bach Cantata Ever Recorded (more than 200 are extant). He meticulously kept track of this project on sheets of graph paper. After his death I kept the papers, but let most of the CDs go. The sheer number—more than 80—was just too overwhelming to deal with in the midst of the hundreds of other CDs, LPs, and tapes he owned.

Steve liked the fact that he was born on the same date that Shakespeare was (probably) born. April 23 also is World Book Day, which seems appropriate. Steve loved books. He used to buy arcane, ratty old paperbacks—nonfiction, usually on history, philosophy, or art—for a quarter or so at the library book sales. If he spent more than a quarter, you knew it was something that he really wanted. Kurt Vonnegut was the major exception to this thriftiness. Steve would spring for a hardback when a new Vonnegut book came out, if I hadn’t already given it to him for a present.

Steve, age 48

Steve, age 48

Some other people and things that Steve liked: Bertrand Russell, Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Star Trek, Nick Drake, Eric Dolphy, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Jan Garbarek, Glenn Gould, chopped garlic slathered on thin-crust pizza, Sriracha Rooster hot sauce, desert boots (remember those?), black T-shirts, Asian paintings, African sculpture and masks, found objects used as art objects (I’ve kept a small green sewer lid he found before we were married), “Barney Miller,” “The Andy Griffith Show” (and its theme song, which he recorded onto a tape loop), Woody Allen, independent and foreign films, really bad movies (he called these “Liberty” movies, after the decrepit Liberty Theater in a nearby town, which showed mostly really bad movies for a dollar admission), “High Plains Drifter,” Sophia Loren, Heath Bar Blizzards, pocket watches instead of wristwatches, minimalism in almost every area of life, porches, trees (he couldn’t bear to see a tree cut down), and National Geographic, especially the maps they sometimes included.

A born nature lover, Steve had his happiest times during high school and college when he and his friend Perry hiked all over southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. Certainly Steve and I had our best days during vacation trips. I loved showing him places that were close to my heart from family vacations, but even better was traveling where neither of us had been before—like Craters of the Moon National Park, in Idaho, or New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the fall. Steve’s favorite states were Maine and New Mexico, along with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The remoteness was part of their appeal, I think. Had we ever made it to Alaska, I’m not sure I would have gotten him back to southern Illinois.

Fully half of Steve’s utterances to me came from other sources. Many of his favorite expressions were used by a subset of guys his age who were smart, deeply weird, and lovers of Monty Python and early Saturday Night Live. Some expressions were Steve’s own, and some I never have found sources for. Whenever I’m talking with someone, Steve-isms constantly fly out of my mouth, as if I’m channeling him. Here are just a few of the things that I heard a lot:

  • “Well, I can go to bed now, I learned something today.”
  • “I wasn’t expecting a sort of Spanish Inquisition!”
  • “Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!”
  • “Evil, wicked, mean, and nasty.”
  • “42” (said to me with infuriating frequency whenever I asked him a question; Google it if necessary)
  • “Make up your feeble mind.”
  • “My hovercraft is full of eels.”
  • “The wrong side of town” (i.e., anything across the railroad tracks from our house, since that meant he could be caught by a train when running an errand there)
  • “Brrrr cold rays!” (when it was cold outside)
  • “I win!” (the sum total, start to finish, of Steve’s favorite game was simply to say “I win!”)

One original expression of Steve’s that I found hilarious was the time he referred to dog food as “proto-poop.” (Perhaps you had to be there.) Another time our neighborhood association was discussing the party noise coming from a rental house and Steve said to a friend of ours, “Maybe we could burn a boogie deck on their front lawn.” That still makes me laugh.

A quotation often directed at me was “Are you talking Pig Latin? What do all of those words mean?” (from the Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert is answering the phone at a call center). Any number of circumstances could trigger that one. A saying that I came up with myself (to the best of my knowledge) was “I don’t have to talk to you and I don’t have to not talk to you.” Steve adopted this one immediately and later attempted to claim authorship of it. He was also very much into saying that he was going to copyright the word “the” so that he’d be rich and wouldn’t have to work anymore.

I miss all of this nonsense tremendously. Steve kept his private thoughts just that—private—so to a large extent these and a hundred other like expressions WERE Steve for me.

Academically, Steve was a psychology and philosophy double-major, and he was a special fan of Greek philosophy. This nearly crippled our marriage. One of the most exasperating things about Steve was that I couldn’t get him to discuss problems or to work through fights. Such “conversations” quickly derailed, with Steve heading one way, making intense, incomprehensible statements about Plato, while I headed another, usually trying to persuade him that he needed to take more initiative about things.

Steve’s tragedy was that he didn’t know what to do with his life. He could have been almost anything he wanted to be. Instead, as a master’s student, he racked up what probably still stands as the highest number of incompletes in the history of SIU’s philosophy department. So he worked as a secretary (a high-stress job, as anyone who’s ever been a secretary knows). When he hyperventilated on the way home from work one day, I suggested that he take a year off work and paint, which is what he really liked to do.

He knew a great deal about art, and though few people saw his work, he was an excellent painter of abstract compositions. So he quit work, painted a great deal, and eventually submitted some slides to a top Chicago gallery. Unfortunately, this was equivalent to a writer shooting for publication in The New Yorker right off the bat. He was rejected, but the gallery owner wrote him a note saying that he found the paintings interesting and to let him know if Steve was going to be showing his work in the Chicago area.

This outcome was kind of like winning second prize in the lottery: not what you’d hoped for, but pretty damn good. I knew this from my days of sending out poetry manuscripts to little journals (not The New Yorker), and I told Steve he had netted quite a compliment. But Steve never sent slides to a gallery again. When I began entering photographs in juried art shows in the region, I encouraged him to do the same. You need to build up a résumé to approach major galleries, I told him. No dice. Rejection, I think, just felt too risky to Steve, and it was easy for him to get his back up—especially when he knew his work was good.

And it was good. I still have two big Hollinger boxes full of Steve’s paintings (his medium was undiluted watercolor on paper). His parents took what I call the Rorschach approach to abstract art. Confronted with one of Steve’s paintings, they complimented it but would try their hardest to find something in it that resembled a real-world scene or object. In her mid-70s, Steve’s mom took a watercolor class and quickly showed a lot of talent at representational painting. So a few years after Steve and his dad died (both in 2008), I hauled the Hollinger boxes down to her and let her choose any paintings she wanted to keep. She may not like abstract art very much, but on some level she gets it. Damned if she didn’t pick some of the very best ones.

Steve, age 49

Steve, age 49

A much better cook than I was, Steve made great omelets and an excellent chunky marinara sauce with green peppers, mushrooms, and onions. But some things eluded him. He made several attempts at homemade pizza, but the crust never came out right. One Christmas his parents gave him a bread machine, which led to a couple of near-disasters, which led to the giving-away of the bread machine. And as many times as he tried, his homemade hummus never tasted like the kind in restaurants. But most of what he made was delicious.

Steve was less attentive to his appearance than just about anyone I’ve ever met. When his parents expressed their disapproval (“Why don’t you take some pride in how you look?”), he reminded them of what the Bible had to say about pride. (He was an atheist, but couldn’t bring himself to tell his Southern Baptist parents.) Steve felt he was unattractive—I never could convince him otherwise—and I think he just trained himself not to care. In the profile picture I posted on his Facebook memorial page (see above), his beard is neatly trimmed, but in the early years of our marriage it was long, skimpy, and scraggly, so that he looked a bit like an underfed Scots-Amish farmer.

The profile picture also shows Steve’s beloved hemp hat. He found these hats at the Neighborhood Co-op, and I bought one too. He loved this hat so much, he would have slept in it if he could have. He wore his winter and summer, outdoors and indoors, day and night, virtually 24/7, for years, until the sweat stains made it look as if he’d spit tobacco juice over the whole thing. Then holes developed where the brim attached. Finally even I couldn’t stand it, and I gave him my own hat, which I seldom used (too warm). He wore it sometimes but frequently reverted back to the Hat From Hell. The hat made Steve instantly recognizable on campus and in Carbondale generally.

On the rare occasions nowadays when I see a tall, thin guy wearing a similar kind of hat, my heart stops momentarily. I’m thinking it always will.

My mother never got flowers ~

When my sister and I were growing up, we occasionally asked my mom if she wanted flowers and why Dad never got her any—or something along those lines. She said that flowers were a waste of money because they wilted so fast and then were depressing—or something along those lines. I definitely remember the waste-of-money part. Mom’s view seemed to be that only a fool would give someone a bouquet from the florist’s.

So I never gave my mother flowers either.

Mom died when I was 39. My sister flew to Colorado from California; my husband and I drove from Illinois. Dad didn’t arrange for a memorial service, although several of Mom’s seven brothers were still alive and might have appreciated the closure. So it was to be just the four of us viewing Mom’s body in a small room at the funeral home.

As we were making our few little preparations for this event, to my astonishment I learned that Mom’s favorite flower was yellow roses. I didn’t know she had a favorite flower, and I would never have guessed yellow roses. Our houses didn’t have yellow rooms or many yellow things in them. Mom didn’t wear yellow; she favored blues, purples, greens, reds.

But Dad knew about the yellow roses. Evidently Mom hadn’t always thought that a gift from the florist was a waste of money. Did he give her yellow roses when they were dating? Or in the eight years before I was born? And if so, why did he stop? Was Mom’s standard line just her way of protecting herself against disappointment?

If I’d had any idea that Mom had a favorite flower, I would have sent her yellow roses for her birthday, wilting be damned. I would have gotten her some when she came to visit in 1992 and I learned that she and Dad were still living in the same house but communicating only via notes. Maybe I would have sent her some when I learned that she’d sued for divorce (she later withdrew the suit).

Instead, she got them when she couldn’t appreciate them: after she died. Each of us placed one yellow rose on her chest as she lay on the cloth-covered table that would take her down to the crematorium. It didn’t seem like enough of a ritual. It didn’t seem like enough of anything.

We should have given her flowers all the time, and at the end, she should have been resting on a bower of yellow roses.