Monday, April 19

My braggadocio screeches louder than your braggadocio ...

I do not normally engage in idle boasting and prefer to think of myself as someone who is fairly humble about my achievements and skills. I put a premium on modesty — after all, those who know me best will readily tell you that I have a lot to be modest about. So it is with some trepidation that I venture here to unveil to all my blog friends a talent that, as far as I know, is unique to me and me alone. Something that no other person I have ever met has done, or perhaps even thought to try. So please forgive me and bear with this immodesty.

You see, years ago I used to converse with fax machines. You all remember fax machines, right? I know that the web, email, Acrobat Reader and scanners are quickly making them obsolete. In fact, the reason I choose to share this unique gift of mine now is precisely because soon there will be many people who have never seen a fax and may not even know what they were used for. Yes, the fax machine is doomed to go the way of the slide rule I remember using in high school chemistry class and the punched cards fed into those early computers in my first computer science course (I guess this dates me).

I work at home as a legal and financial translator and have been doing so for over 20 years now. On the whole, this has been great as it has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my daughters, and work in my pajamas while listening to my Charles Mingus CDs. When I first started, much of the work sent to me was on paper, not in electronic files, and it would be faxed to me. I did not actually have a fax machine per se, but a fax modem in my PC. Remember, all of this was before email. So clients would fax their bond issue underwriting agreements and other pearls of world literature straight to my fax modem through my one and only voice line (not called voice line back then, just “the phone”).

Some of you may remember the routine. You would get a call, pick up the phone, say Hello, (Hola in my case, shouted above Mingus's Haitian Fight Song) and, when you heard the telltale screechy electronic squeal, run the fax program on the PC. The only problem was that I would often not have the program running, or the PC would not even be on. In what seemed like the interminable wait for the fax application to ready itself to take over, my fax caller would re-bleat the greeting, more insistently all the time, then become angry to the point of downright nasty. Since I could not really understand the speeding string of shrieked metallic expletives that followed, I would not take much offence, but I did find it nerve wracking to be cowed into anguished silence while waiting to see if good ole fax app would step in just in time and literally get me off the hook.

Sometimes he would, and the sternly squealed scolding would subside. Fax app and the aggrieved fax would begin to chatter away happily and I would hang up so they could get on with their conversation without me. But more often than not, the fax app cavalry would not ride in in time to save the day: the screaming electronic gibberish on the other side of the conversation would tire out, give up and end the call, sometimes but a mere second or two before fax app would happily announce on my computer screen that he was ready to rumble (or squeal actually; it was Mingus who was rumbling). But by then the somber dial tone had returned to let me know that I had really let someone down.

This invariably meant that I would have to guess as to which client might have been trying to send me work, call them on the phone and, if indeed they were the owners of the forlorn fax screamer, request that they apologize for me to the miffed mystery mutterer and kindly call or ring or fax or shriek again, that my fax app was now up and running.

Eventually, I came upon an inspired solution, born of frustration and quite by chance but inspired nonetheless. No, nothing as simple as having my PC on and fax app running in the background. Puh-lease, that would have been obvious to the point of banality.

No, instead, one frustrated afternoon, annoyed by the insistent shrill gerbil squeaking at me, irritated by my own humiliated silence, and convinced that fax app was never going to take over in time before the high-octave and high-decibel delirium on the other end of the line lost all patience, what I did was to start screeching back: chrreeeeeee! shreeee! peteleee! xxhreeee! tleee tleee tleee tleeee!!! (I am only paraphrasing the conversation here — as this was many years ago).

And to my complete and utter amazement ... it worked. Instantly, my shrill squawking produced silence on the other end. A very expectant silence that I was sure would be followed by the telltale dial tone or a renewed outburst of electronic metal invective lambasting me for my brazenness. But, no, that rich silence was followed by something even richer: a meek and suddenly humbled "blee ... blee ... blee?".

Ha! HAA!!! I had it doubting! And I was no longer to be pushed around. I continued my high-pitched shrieking with another volley of chreeess and shreeees and tleeeess. Again, silence. And then ... a soft and almost plangent ... bleeeeeeeee??? Now that the tables were turned and I was the overbearing bully, I viciously held forth with another round of garbled gerbil gibberish of my own. This time, though, my fax sparring partner bounced back off the ropes a bit more aggressively, less cowed, and started spewing his electronic expletives again. I took it on the chin and responded in kind, letting fly a flurry of squeals. This incensed him and he tried to intimidate me with further salvos of fax fury, but I could tell his heart wasn't in it. It just wasn't the same any more. I had at the least won myself some grudging respect, damn it.

Well I won't go on with all the irritating shrill chirpy details, but the point is that just as the squealfest was starting to get ugly, fax app stepped in and took over for me. He beeped out a short cadence of squeaks himself and that seemed to quickly mollify my agitated but befuddled fax caller. The fax arrived correctly.

And, sure enough, this soon became a habit. The truth is I was quite pleased with this new-found gift of mine and discovered I was consistently able to hold my own with fax callers. The initial acrimony of this first encounter did not return and our squealing and squeaking was soon trained on weightier matters. Not that the conversations made much sense or shed any light on the mysterious inner reaches of the human soul, but they did generally succeed in holding the client caller at bay until fax app took over for me at the helm.

I would enjoy experimenting with new elocutions and messages. Almost anything would work as long as it was screeched very fast, very high pitched and very loud. Gibberish was fine, but I pride myself on being an added-value shrieker, so I tried loftier oratorical patter. Shakespeare was a favorite. What could be more fun than to declaim "To be or not to be ..." three octaves higher than normal and at five times the speed? Granted, Hamlet's famous soliloquy does lose some of its existential gravitas when intoned by what could only be likened to a helium-inhaling castrati choir of Alvin and the Chipmunks on an amphetamine binge. But I was not trying to rival Sir Laurence Olivier, I was just trying to hold the line for fax app. And, hey, it worked. I was proud.

My wife and daughters less so. Eventually, they did get used to it though — believe it or not, I have indulged and they have learned to live with habits even stranger than this one. But I will never forget the pained expression on Isabel's face, cringing as she closed the door to my office, her eyes rolling upward and sighing a resigned "Papá, por favor!" as she wondered how she was going to explain to her visiting friend why daddy was singing-whining I Got Plenty O' Nothin' from Porgy and Bess at the top of his tonsils into the phone. And more than once I felt an alarmed shudder run through me as I pondered what would happen if the clients on the other end could actually hear where they were sending their prospectuses on mortgage-backed securities for translation (yes, those very same ones that have nearly torched the international financial system). Happily, that never happened and I continued to regale my fax callers with my doppler-defying digital diatribes.

But, alas, those days are gone now. Nobody ever sends me faxes any more. My current PC does not even have fax capabilities. My squeals and shrieks are just a happy echoed memory of this singular accomplishment of mine. There is nothing at present that I can point to in my narrow repertoire of skills as truly unique. Again, I have much to be modest about; I can live with this humbling knowledge. But something inside me will always be tickled when I look back and think that ... Doctor Doolittle could talk to the animals. Robert Redford whispered to horses. And me? Lorenzo? I was The Fax Chatterer.

Friday, April 16

Luncheon morsels and 'a little plan'

One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's most beloved works is the charming moment captured in Luncheon of the Boating Party, which many of you may have had occasion to enjoy at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. He managed to meld landscape, still life, portraiture and genre painting into an intimate unified composition, while somehow gracefully balancing two figures on the left with a dozen on the right. Despite the crowded table, there is still a welcoming spot waiting for us at the forefront.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880–81. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
The scene depicts one of the many boating and lunch outings celebrated by Renoir and the group of friends and acquaintances pictured here at the Maison Fournaise restaurant on the Seine river in Chatou, a 20 minute train ride west of Paris. The painting, according to the artist's son Jean in his book Renoir, My Father (see earlier post on the filmmaker and playwright's recollection of his painter father), "was the crowning achievement of a long series of pictures, studies and sketches" done at the restaurant during the 1870s.
Here is an actual postcard from that time showing what the restaurant and surrounding area looked like when it was frequented by Renoir and friends just a few years before he painted the famed luncheon group. I have clipped it from an excellent artistic and historical analysis of the painting that you can find here at the Phillips Collection website.

Postcard of the Maison Fournaise and Seine river, 1870s. © Musée Fournaise, Chatou-France
At the time, the restaurant was popularly known as the "Grenouillére", literally, the "frog pond". And this was "not from the numerous batrachians which swarmed in the surrounding fields". The term grenouilles, frogs, was used to describe

... a class of unattached young women, characteristic of the scene before and after the Empire, changing lovers easily, satisfying any whim, going nonchalantly from a mansion in the Champs Elysées to a garret in the Batignolles. To them we owe the memory of a Paris which was brilliant, witty and amusing.
Among that group, moreover, Renoir got a great many of his volunteer models... Because French people love a medley of classes, actresses, society women and respectable middle-class people also patronized the Fournaise restaurant. The tone of it was set by young sportsmen in striped jerseys, who vied with one another to become accomplished boatmen.
Much has been written on the mix of boatmen, artists, patrons, actresses, restaurant owner and others who are gathered around this table. For more information on this festive cast of characters, you can do no better than to visit the informative and enjoyable website devoted to Susan Vreeland's novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.

I will only pick at some choice morsels from this luscious meal. Here, apart from briefly mentioning that the young woman happily playing with the dog is Renoir's beloved Aline Charigot, later to become his wife, I wanted to discuss one of the guests, the gentleman in the yellow straw hat and sleeveless maillot at the bottom right, the engineer, heir to a bank fortune, painter, art patron, yachtsman and close friend of Renoir's: Gustave Caillebotte.

Gustave Caillebotte is a somewhat unsung hero of the Impressionist movement. Born into a family of bankers, he resisted the pressure to follow his father's profession and instead threw himself into what he most loved: painting. According to Jean Renoir, Caillebotte "painted with as much passion as any member of the Impressionist group". Although not always considered an Impressionist painter, in part due to the realism of his paintings, he did exhibit with them. And he became a great friend, patron and financial and moral backer and determined advocate for that group of struggling young "intransigents", as they called themselves.

Below is The Floor Scrapers, one of his paintings. He displayed it at the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876, for which he received, again according to Jean Renoir, "his share of criticism and insults". One of the objections that barred the doors of the official Salon to him in this work was his choice of subject. The urban proletariat were just not considered the proper object of a "serious" artist's attention. While the idealized depictions of peasants and farmers by Millet and others had begun to find favor with the Academy's arbiters of high art, the same did not go for people who toiled in cities.

Gustave Caillebotte, 1875. Les raboteurs de parquet (The Floor Scrapers). Musee d'Orsay, Paris
In Jean Renoir's account of his father's reaction to the painting
Renoir praised it, and Caillebotte, being an exceedingly modest man, had blushed. He was only too well aware of his limitations. "I try to paint honestly, hoping that some day my work will be good enough to hang in the antechamber of the living-room where the Renoirs and Cézannes are hung".
At the recent Impressionist exhibition in Madrid (see earlier post on the Impressionist show at Fundación Mapfre), I was able to see this painting and found it quite striking. I even found myself looking at the floor below the painting to see if I could spot any wood shavings that may have wafted down. In recent years, Caillebotte's works have been drawing renewed attention from art historians and receiving greater due (see the highly interesting essay, "Odd Man In: A Brief Historiography of Caillebotte's Changing Roles in The History of Art" by Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC).

What is beyond all dispute is the valuable contribution he made to the early Impressionists as they struggled to eke out an existence. His financial support, especially for Monet, was crucial. Caillebotte funded exhibitions, paid studio rents, bought several dozen of their paintings and helped keep them together when disputes arose and threatened to irreparably disrupt the movement.

And in 1876, when he wrote his will, he came up with a "little plan" to definitively elevate the Impressionist upstarts to what he felt was their rightful place in the art world, a plan that would not be activated until his death in 1894 at the age of 45. Again, Jean Renoir recalls what his father told him of this generous friend and patron:
 Caillebotte had gathered the most important collection of his friends' works. His enthusiastic purchases were often made just in the nick of time for those who benefited by them. How many artists in financial straits at the end of the month were saved by his generosity and farsightedness. "He had his own little plan ... He was a sort of Joan of Arc of painting".

Gustave Caillebotte — Paris Street- Rainy Weather 1877. Art Institute of Chicago.

Caillebotte willed his collection of nearly 70 paintings (almost all by Impressionists) to the French government, on the condition that they be shown at the Luxembourg Palace (where living artists were exhibited) and then at the Louvre. He hoped the French government would not dare to refuse it. The ostracism still faced by the Impressionists would thus be vanquished and they would finally have their place of honor in the great museum of French and world art. That was Caillebotte's "little plan".

Sadly, the government did not accept the terms. Renoir, as executor of Caillebotte's will, had to carry on the very complicated and unpleasant negotiations. His son Jean describes the outcome:
Everyone knows the sequel. At least two thirds of this unique collection, one of the greatest in the world, was turned down. The remaining third did not get past the doors of the Louvre, but was stored away in the Luxembourg Museum. On the death of Charlotte Caillebotte, those works which had been rejected went to various heirs, who got rid of them as quickly as possible. Scorned by France, they were well received in foreign countries. A good many were bought in the United States. I tell this story to any French friend who accuses Americans of having emptied France of its masterpieces by means of the almighty dollar.
The exact number of paintings almost reluctantly accepted by the French government and stored at the Luxembourg museum was 38. They eventually went on to form the core of the Musée d'Orsay's Impressionist collection. The French government did finally change its mind in 1928 and tried to claim the inheritance of the rest of the paintings from Caillebotte's marvelous collection, but the bequest was repudiated by the heirs (Caillebotte's widowed daughter-in-law), and most of those paintings were purchased by Albert C. Barnes and are now held by the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia. For more on Caillebotte and a slideshow of some of his major works, see the website Gustave Caillebotte — The Complete Works.

One more person in the Renoir luncheon that I wanted to point out is the young woman holding the glass of wine to her mouth near the center of the composition: Ellen Andrée, an actress who modeled for Renoir (as well as for Degas). You may recall that in the delightful film Amelie, Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party was the painting copied once a year for the last 20 years by Amelie's reclusive artist neighbor, Richard Dufayel. In the movie the figure of Ellen Andrée comes to be associated, at least for Dufayel, with Amelie. If you have not seen Amelie, you probably really should be doing that instead of reading my blog. Perhaps I should have said that at the beginning of this very long post.
Dufayel, Amelie and 'Renoir'

Well, this luncheon is about over now.  I apologize for the length of this post, but here in Spain, as in France, the sobremesa, the leisurely hours spent at the luncheon table after the main eating is done, whiling away the minutes and hours in conversation and friendship, tend to be the best part of the meal. Whet your appetite with the brief video (make sure to put it on 720 HD and full screen) to luxuriate at the table with this now venerable group of boaters cum luncheoners and then click here to see what other Theme Thursday participants have served for lunch.

Saturday, April 10

Magpie Tales 9 — Lipstick

Magpie Tales 9
Magpie Tales was begun by our beautiful blog friend willow, of Life at Willow Manor, "dedicated to the enjoyment of writers, for the purpose of honing their craft, sharing it with like minded bloggers, and keeping their muses alive and well". This week's writing prompt is the photo to the left.

So what is a man to do with lipstick? Well there are only two possibilities really — either a murder mystery where the gotcha clue is the lipstick or a haiku. There may be other possibilities but none come to my tawdry mind.

As for the murder mystery ... I ain't confessin' yet,  so you get the haikus. Three of them.

smeared lipstick
sipping lipstick wine
my lips tick midnight time while
her lips tickle mine

Lipstick on window from The Two Dog Blog

intransitive lips
disembodied kiss
lives an intransitive love
lips with no object

Broken Heart Canyon — © Marylee Pope ( Click on photo to enlarge.

tongue in cheek
skiing on gloss lips
I slide deep down into her
heart broken canyon

Actually there are other possibilities, and very good ones at that, so pucker up and go check them out at magpie tales by clicking on the caption of the lipstick photo at the top or here.

Wednesday, April 7

... let's just go walking in the rain

Billie Holiday, age 2 (1917)
Don't threaten me with love, baby. Let's just go walking in the rain — Billie Holiday

The great Billie Holiday was born 95 years ago today, on April 7th 1915. In my personal pantheon, there has never been a greater singer in sheer capacity to transfix and move the listener. Much beloved by her fellow musicians, her own musicianship was of the highest order and her raconteurship emotionally riveting. The jewels she hewed from the mountains of despair that formed the landscape of her life still radiate light today.

For some reason, I cannot look at the moon without seeing Lady Day's face. I do not remember when or why this began and only know that this is so and has been for practically all of my adult life.

Billie Holiday — Evening Standard/Getty Images
Many years ago when I saw filmed images of Billie Holiday for the first time I was struck by how graceful, composed and relaxed she seemed when she sang. Before that I had relied on album cover photos and my imagination as to how she must have looked while performing. Given the tremendous emotional force of her records, I guess I had conjured up writhing images of a contorted, grimacing face, eyes closed tight, head thrown back, mouth locked in the siren's rictus. This was before I had learned that valuable lesson enunciated by Sarah Vaughan when she said that the great artists always seem to be holding something back.

But in this performance, Billie Holiday just seemed to be sitting on a bar stool, cool, calm and naturally, jes talkin' atcha. I was struck by the realization that everything I had heard on all those vinyls was just her way of talking. But, oh, the things she had to say ...

Painting by Merryl Jaye
I embed that famous clip below, taken from 'The Sounds of Jazz' TV show which first aired in December 1957, with an incredible lineup of jazz greats accompanying her on Fine and Mellow, one of the few songs Billie Holiday wrote herself. The recording was made around a year and a half before she died. Her voice was not at its finest, but yet this is considered by many to be the finest piece of jazz ever recorded.  One of the tenor sax players on the date was Lester Young, with whom she had been, for many years, especially "close". He was the man who christened her 'Lady Day' and she was the first to call him 'Prez', the nicknames by which they came to be known by their fellow musicians and for posterity.

For me, and many others, the highlight is the expression on Lady Day's face as Lester Young begins to blow his gently simmering blues, the way she nods and shakes her head as the Prez hits that sweet spot. Take a look and listen (Lester Young's solo is the second one, after Ben Webster's) ...

white gardenias sway
under a mesmeric moon
so fine and mellow

The lineup of musicians is given in the introduction by the show's host and producer Robert Herridge. The order of the solos is:
Ben Webster - tenor sax
Lester Young - tenor sax
Vic Dickenson - trombone
Gerry Mulligan - baritone sax
Coleman Hawkins - tenor sax
Roy Eldridge - trumpet

Monday, April 5

a little loving in between …

Vincent Van Gogh —  First steps (after Millet), 1890. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This post was meant to go out on March 30th, but one thing or another has led to this delay. {Were I a writer, I would call it writer’s block, but since I am not a writer, I don’t know what to call it}.

March 30th marks the birthday of two of history’s most important painters, Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch impressionist master whose very name and semblance have become icons of the suffering tormented artist, and Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the painter of Spanish royals, implacable firing squads, nude and clothed majas and personal demons. Several blog friends have posted on Van Gogh (kimy at mouse medicine and the ever Clever Pup), so here I will include images of some of the better known paintings of the less celebrated Goya. All of the Goya paintings below are part of the permanent collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Followed by a poem.

The Third of May 1808 (1814)

The Clothed Maja (La maja vestida), ca. 1803

The Nude Maja (La maja desnuda), ca. 1799
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819)

Love wounds
When my big-eyed small-town girl
regards her nude body
in our bedroom mirror
there is a sag and wince
in her eyes as they catch
on the long overlapping scars
left by two caesarian sections —
footprints of our daughters’ first steps

Her gaze re-plows the furrowed
slit of pink puckered skin and flesh
mocked in her mornings
by Frankenstein staple smile
the wave where the storm snapped
the oar and ripped the folded sail
when the midwife became surgeon
the stork brought a scalpel to the nest
and the well rehearsed breathing
of birthing pangs and pains succumbed
under sugared swirls of anesthetizing ether

Had I such mystical powers
I would gladly kiss away those scars
from the mirrors of her self-regard
but I don’t know if I could ever
bring myself to make them vanish
from the delicious curve of her soft belly

I would not erase the Rembrandt
craquelure from her Rubens tummy
the mauve ridge I anoint
with the unguent nectar of my narcissus
nor could I release the lightning bolt
captured in amber
the morning the world was created
and the first cradle first rocked

But there are other wounds
that cannot be tickled with my nose
or cupped in trembling hands
wounds that leave no scars
because they never close
never heal

Inside those grimaced eyes
there is the throb of such wounds
that my blind archers have caused her
fountains where the morning doe once
drank pine-scented waters in the hidden clearing
before being felled by wayward arrows
gashes that will only be closed
by the final open wound
that devours us all
the day freed lightning
burns down the cathedral forest

Stitched womb
bruised hearts
open grave
crest risen daughters
crest fallen lovers
honeyed waters run into salt sea
my whispering horn serenades
the moist cotton of her pillow
grapevines ripped from trestles
tendrils roaming August winds

Forgive the fevered ghosts that wander here
forgive me if I choke on bloodied words
and if those that struggle out
bring the pain of kindest cuts
but love is not an anesthetic
love is a hallucinogenic
razor lozenge
forever humming in the throat

        * * *
It is Spring,
let me sleep in your waters
scatter cherry blossoms on your mirror
while our wounds learn to love each other

March 30th is also my wedding anniversary. Twenty years after María and I got married our love has brought forth and raised two daughters and borne loving witness to their coming onto the threshold of adulthood. In the nearly quarter century that has passed since we decided to braid our destinies together, we have seen blissful days and days of pain and confusion, memorable inner and outer sojourns and exasperating crises, clouds of butterflies and swarms of hornets. Above all else, the many steps of this journey have nurtured deep and abiding friendship and love. Our love, like life itself, is not perfect — it is achingly real and far more beautiful than all of that.

Feliz aniversario nena.

Debt acknowledgement: the following poetic snippets have danced in my mind while doing this post ...

Advice by and from Langston Hughes
"Folks, I'm telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean—
so get yourself
a little loving
in between."

“let our scars fall in love” — Galway Kinnell

"When a man wishes a woman he will blow a horn.
When a woman wishes a man she eats the cotton of her pillow"
   —Nizar Qabbani

Blog friend Brian of Waystation One will recognize these thoughts from a comment I left on his “Kiss off wedding crasher” post, from which I have outright swiped gratefully borrowed the “pink puckered flesh” image. You have my apologies and thanks, Brian.