The Big Trip: Jazz and jumping beans ~

Part of neon sign collection, American Jazz Museum, Kansas City. The Fox’s Tap Room sign is original.

"Spider," by Louise Bourgeois, 1996. This sculpture serves as the Kemper's logo.

“Spider,” by Louise Bourgeois, 1996. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. This sculpture has been adopted as the museum’s logo.

Detail of "Bacchus," by Helen Frankenthaler, 2002. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Detail of “Bacchus,” by Helen Frankenthaler, 2002. Permanent collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Bellicose Church, Kansas City

Days 2 & 3: Boonville to Lawrence.

Yesterday morning I left the Boonville Comfort Inn before 10:30, ready to face the “major delay” promised at mile marker 77. There turned out to be no delay, so I ended up parking outside the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City a little before noon. This is in the 18th & Vine district, where Charlie Parker came to prominence, so I listened to some of Parker’s music while I was driving to K.C. to put me in the right mood. (For those who haven’t seen it, “Bird,” starring Forest Whitaker as Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood, who is a jazz aficionado, is excellent; see what Roger Ebert had to say about it here). The museum was small but had lots of listening stations. I wandered around looking at the exhibits and listening to some classic jazz. The place was deserted. I would like to also have seen the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is on the other side of the same building, but my legs needed a break and my stomach needed lunch.

I decided to look for a lunch place while en route to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which had been a disappointment when David and I visited in 2012. Why the Kemper? Because the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I always seem to be going through Kansas City on Monday or Tuesday. Argghh!

On the way a no-left-turn sign diverted me from my route and I found myself in a couple of gentrifying blocks. I photographed the sign for Bellicose Church, on the assumption that it was indeed some sort of place of worship and not, say, the design studio of someone who’d given himself a peculiar name. The typography was uncommonly good for a small church, or for pretty much any church. But I thought it was funny, whatever it was. (I just now looked it up and no longer find it funny. It is a church—a “missional community”—with this action statement: “We named our church Bellicose because we don’t believe that Jesus wants his church to be passive. Therefore we’re inclined or eager to fight for people’s hearts (John 15:13), aggressively hostile to the gates of hell (Matt 16:18, Matt 11:12), and warlike against sin (1 Pet 2:11, 2 Cor 10:3-5) — we’re aggressive in our love for God and people.” Well, at least they’re honest about it. But God save me from people who are aggressive in their love for God. So is ISIS.

After photographing the church facade, I went into, and back out of, a place called the Corner Café. I am indeed a total rube when it comes to food. I’m reluctant to try anything with ingredients that I need to have defined or that seem bizarre. For instance, one salad came with espresso vinaigrette, which seemed to be overreaching for originality. Every lunch entreé involved one or more such oddities, so I after I visited the Kemper Museum I sat in my car in the parking lot eating the string cheese, carrots, and almonds I’d packed, which was much cheaper and probably more healthful.

I spent very little time at the Kemper, which was again a disappointment because the main building has only a couple of small galleries devoted to their permanent collection. However, included in those galleries was an absolutely wonderful purple painting by Helen Frankenthaler called, appropriately, “Bacchus.” It alone was worth the visit. I took some photos, none of which begin to do it justice. Then I fell for a ceramic vase in the gift shop, which is precisely what happened the first time I went to the Kemper. Don’t go in museum gift shops when you’re tired and hungry: That should be one of my mantras. There is a vacation phenomenon whereby you give yourself permission to spend money on such things even though you tell yourself not to. And here I’ve been getting rid of as much stuff as possible at home.

I decided not to take the turnpike to Lawrence, but to go the southern route, through Overland Park. Once I got off 470 and onto Kansas Route 10, it seemed like I was in Lawrence in no time. I found the main drag easily, ate cheese ravioli and spanakopita at a Greek/Italian restaurant, then hit the nature store and the toy store that I’d spotted on my first drive-through. Oddly, given that I’d just mentioned Mexican jumping beans in my recent blog post on spirit animals, the nature store had some of those little clear boxes of beans on the checkout counter–the first I’d seen in years. The sales clerk, an older woman, knew about the larva, and about why they jumped. Some of the beans were in sunlight, and they did seem to be jumping more than the ones that were in shadow. “Here,” she said, handing me a section of newspaper. “If you put that over the display, they’ll stop jumping.” I did it, and bingo, the jumping stopped immediately. That was impressive. I did it a couple more times and told her about my blog post. I bought a 50-cent plastic lizard as a mascot for the trip and also an inexpensive but lovely fossil, an orthoceras–an ancient cephalopod that navigated by squirting water out of its body. The toy store, which was jaw-droppingly extensive, made me wish I knew someone with a little kid. It would have been great fun to explore the whole place and buy tons of presents.

This morning, in my motel room in Lawrence, I decided that I needed extra sleep before going to the Spencer Museum of Art, my main reason for stopping here. I ended up sleeping all day. In the evening I called the museum, which the AAA Tour Guide said was open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and a recording announced that it was closed for renovations until sometime in 2016. So that was that.

I’d forgotten that when I sleep in the daytime, my dreams tend to be more nightmarish than usual. Now I’m feeling very bad emotionally, with my legs aching from driving, and I’m beginning to think about aborting the trip. The drive out seems overwhelming, and the drive back, impossible. Given everything I’ve learned about Fort Collins real estate in the last two weeks, it seems a fool’s errand to go out there. I’m also worried about my sister back in Carbondale, who has descended from hypomania back into depression, and I feel guilty about leaving the dogs in the kennel for so long. I’ve decided to put off the decision until tomorrow morning. I showered after getting up at 5:30 tonight, so tomorrow I can just get dressed, throw everything into the car, and take off. Whether west or homeward, I don’t know.

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Please stand by ~

To Higher-Ups:

The Technical Team has noted serious technical difficulties with Blog entitled “Vapor and Flow,” with no forward (or backward) movement observed since mid-January. Blog is currently parked in the Driver’s front yard, where it seems to be accumulating trash. Driver has not yet had it put up on blocks, but Technical Team is on alert.

Team suspects a problem with the fuel injection system, though without hands-on investigation it is impossible to tell whether the gasoline tank might simply be empty. Team had noted some juddering of the steering wheel, accompanied by slightly erratic driving, in December and early January, indicating the need for immediate tire rotation and rebalancing. In addition, tires should be checked for wear. Driver has done none of this.

Driver herself, rather than repairing the Blog or addressing various ethical quandaries in her life at the moment, has become obsessed with the dog urine stains in her carpeting and the possibility of replacing the carpeting with something that can simply be hosed down. She daily repeats a monologue that always begins the same way (“I can’t stand this! What am I going to DO?”) and ends the same way (“But how would they move the piano?”). Technical Team estimates that said piano, a tall, ancient upright, weighs slightly more than a Volkswagen Beetle, flower holder included. Unlike a Beetle, the piano would probably not float, although Team finds this an intriguing question and would very much like to be notified of the results of any experiments along these lines. LOL.

Excuse us, that was unprofessional on our part. To continue, Driver also appears obsessed with a new personal best in Scrabble: her highest-ever non-bingo word score (GAZEBO, 84 points). While interesting numerically, this is judged by Team to be a rather trivial achievement in the grand scheme of things and recommends that Driver should just Get Over It.

Excuse us, please ignore editorial comment. Finally, Technical Team notes that on multiple occasions recently Driver has stated that she “dodged a bullet” because the voice student portion of a recent music recital was cancelled. This comment has been flagged for further analysis, but Team can only assume that someone slated to attend said recital was prepared to use firearms in the event of Driver singing. Team has insufficient information to gauge (pun! LOL) the appropriateness of the posited firearm use.

Excuse us again; Technical Team is fatigued and too easily amused. Team judges that Driver is currently earning A’s in Reading and Scrabble (quantity only), D’s in Physical Therapy and Caregiving, and F’s in Voice Lessons (lack of practice), Problem Resolution (dithering), Diet Remediation (inaction), Photography (inaction), and Blog Repair (inaction and negligence). Given this poor functioning, Driver’s hair looks better than might be expected, although Team is not well trained in assessing such matters.

In conclusion, Technical Team advises continued close monitoring of Blog and Driver, with future updates as necessary.

—Submitted February 23, 2014, ungodly hour of the morning
(Technical Team wishes to note that it has worked overtime on this report and would like to be duly compensated. Thank you.)

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.