Life With Horace

poetry & essays


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archibald and the last watch

Thanks to Pop, a good part of my family has the funny bone chromosome.

We’re talking full spectrum mutations ranging from slapstick to suave joke telling. As far as I can tell, it started with my dad who went to college at 16 and discovered the sweet spot in the City College Assembly Hall for delivering hilarious whispered naughtiness that only the speaker at the lectern could hear.

So, when my son and youngest brother get together, there’s always a point where I’ll have to leave the room. They’re not nasty, they don’t fart, spit or scratch unattractively. They are punsters, inveterate, I’ll-one-up-you, let’s see how long we can keep this one going funny guys. Leaving the room is easy. Try walking down a city street with them when they’re on a roll! Oy.

When our family gathers the jokes come out. Riffs on the early greats we listened to with Pop (Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer or Shelley Berman, and yes, Lenny Bruce) topped only by Mel Brooks or better yet Mel teamed up with Carl Reiner. To this day my take on longevity and grand feats of daring has a lot to do with the nectarine.

Ah, the nectarine you say? An off the cuff bit from The 2000 Year Old Man. Interviewed by Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks’ alter ego gives credit to the nectarine, “half a peach, half a plum” for his longevity, or at least 164 years of it.

Pop also had a thing for watches.

The backstory is that he had an institutional supply business in upstate New York and much of New England, all of it with Catholic parishes and schools. You name the town, he knew the local parish priest or Mother Superior. This meant that Pop could get just about anything wholesale, including watches, which he loved and gave to us at the drop of a hat.

Eight years ago at age 89, Pop’s (internal) ticker gave out.

It was July, and very hot. We all converged on my sister Annie’s house and hugged and cried and told Pop Stories, fanned ourselves and took care of the obit, cleaned out his apartment, planned a memorial to be held in the fall, the nuts and bolts stuff.

Someone mentioned the watches.

At which point my nephew Jason told us Pop had sent him a watch on his trip east from Chicago. He flew out very late, so O’Hare was almost deserted. When he got through Security, there, in a plastic bin ahead of the one with his stuff in it, was a watch. Sitting there all by itself.

The TSA guys had no idea where it came from, said it had to be his, no one had been through for over an hour. Jason got the weirdest feeling about that watch. It was from Grandpa, he was certain. So the watch came along, as I guess it was meant to. More laughter and tears, as we looked at the Last Watch.

Well this has been fun but who the heck is Archibald you ask?

He, or more accurately, it, is an honorary member of our family. For the uninitiated, Archibald Essselbrook is a tour de force joke, a supremely racy tongue twister that Pop mastered many years ago. He always told it perfectly, at breakneck speed. It never failed to leave his listeners helpless with laughter.

So, old Archie was listed in Pop’s obituary as his dear friend Archibald Esselbrook of Hudson, NY. I kid you not. It made perfect sense to all of us, our private In Joke for Pop.

Its delivery seems to be a guy thing, and that’s cool with me. My brothers all know it, and I guess my son will too eventually. That’s one I’ll stick around for.


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a creative mother, or how I learned to love dance again

Mom once said that one of Martha Graham’s dancers was awful to her husband and little boy, but when one saw her on stage none of that mattered any more. Of course my teenage psyche salted that one away to use later and say “see?”.

Sitting down I was all set to do a “meaningful”, plaintive post about my mother, and life with a parent whose art was in many ways more important to her than her children.

TURNS OUT it doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
Because, along with having a self-absorbed modern dancer mom, I also had an artist mom who painted zoo animals, including a never-forgotten giraffe, all over our Colorado Springs bathroom walls.

I had a mom who continued to learn and grow and create well into her eighties. I had a mom who regained a love life in her sixties after a long drought, meeting a wonderful man who was her partner for almost twenty years, who took photos while she sketched, was her personal “sag wagon” driver on the many Cross Minnesota MS Bike Rides she did, and who showed her she could trust again, open up again.

I had a mom who morphed from a modern dance teacher and choreographer into a fitness visionary and advocate for homebound seniors in the Twin Cities. I had a mom who loved me, but couldn’t always show it.

NO TURNAROUND happens all at once.
There was my culture writer friend Susan who got tickets to everything cultural (and I mean everything) in Washington, DC. She loved to take friends with her for birthday presents. One year she took me to the Trocks, aka Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

We watched this all male dance troupe perform technically brilliant and hilarious parodies of ballet and modern dance. Re-imagining Pavlova’s “dying Swan” with molting feathers. A hysterical Dance of The Little Swans. Side-splitting send ups of Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey.

I also realized that I knew what I was watching, understood the parody, appreciated the incredible technique and elegance of those men en pointe. All of it a gift from my mom. Life changing.

I ALSO began to grow up.
Not to the point of losing the wonder and delight I cherish in myself. More along the lines of figuring things out, coming to terms with a parent’s humanity and limitations, acknowledging her often ill-expressed love. And simply moving on, putting things I now understood better and no longer feared behind me.

BUT WAIT, there’s more!
With gobs of emotional dreck hoovered away, the closet cleaner and tidier, some shelves empty (isn’t that a lovely thought), I’m busy filling things up again. I had no clue until very recently that I needed to do this. That the best new stuff(ing) would be my own. That I would go on a creative bender of sorts that shows no sign of slowing down.

IT HELPS to be ready to be open. There’s an understatement.
Four years ago life took a powerful turn. A favorite author decided to form a virtual creative group. I jumped in, pretty much cannonballed into the deep end with little idea of what I was doing.

I still find myself zooming about, trying things that look interesting or challenging. At first I wasn’t sure I could do more than one thing at a time. Now I know the answer is Yes. Of course. In the encouraging and intense “biosphere” of this group, it was all good.

The wonderful thing about open thought and its life partner creativity, is that they take up so. much. less. room. They feed the spirit instead of diminishing it.

Best of all, they are infinitely renewable.


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no goodbyes, really

This weekend almost didn’t happen for me because my Newfie was barfing. Fearful of leaving her with some malady that might not turn out well, I stuck around, even unpacked a bit, convinced that she was in a bad way. My very practical husband called, once back in cell phone range (up here that’s an iffy thing) and basically booted me out the door. Go, he said. I’m coming home and will keep an eye on Aggie, he said. No news… he said. Yeah, so I threw everything together again and bolted, muttering thankful prayers for common sense.

The drive to the other side of the Green Mountains from here is always beautiful, even with end of summer tourists milling about in the rain. Coming down into Manchester, Mount Equinox loomed in the mist. I love the immediacy of those mountains. Boom, there they are, looming up right away in your face. I live at the foot of a mountain, a big rocky much climbed hulk, but the outward slope of its arms give it some visual distance.

Once through Dorset, with its Inn and history and everything painted white, the road comes out in a valley that I love because it’s “not”. It’s not fancy, it feels like Columbia County, NY. There are working farms, ramshackle barns, unpruned trees, beautiful old houses.

Of course I’m looking at all this wonderful stuff whizzing by as I’m trying not to go 80 miles an hour, to get to meet friends and kindred spirits I’ve mostly never met. The word lemming comes to mind and I dismiss it. This will be a gathering of a clan. Really. A clan of creative, gifted group of wannabe pirates with a wacky sense of humor who have come together because of the opportunity given us by a man with a vision.

Before you start hearing music from the Outer Limits (although if we were to form a rock group that would be a great name), no brain washing, no personal freedoms were harmed in the making of this story. Jon Katz is an author with a huge following, both in print and in the cyber world. He had the idea to form a creative group using the framework of facebook three months ago. A simple enough concept.

The result (after some necessary growing pains and identity consolidation) has been a miracle. That’s how I think of it. Like he came along and opened up a worm hole into a new place, a safe place to create and express and fall flat on your face, and get wonderful feedback from the rest of the Ministry of Encouragement, as he calls it. Or Jon and the Pirates.

So I got to the weekend’s “opener”, at the home of one of the Group, a beautiful place on a hill with sloping fields and horses, a couple of hours late but not too late. Getting out of the car I felt like jumping up and down with excitement with a good dose of bashful thrown in. You gotta realize that I skipped my 50th high school reunion this summer because, hell, I hadn’t managed to lose the 50 pounds of f*-you weight I was convinced was necessary to show up. Not this time! This was about who we are, everything that makes us the talented, caring members of something unique. I had brought Me there. That’s what mattered,

The rest of the time on the other side of the mountains was all I hoped it would be, from the cookout on Saturday night, to staying with a group member and her wonderful family, to the Open House at Jon and Maria’s farm yesterday. We all gradually met each other (are you an Open Grouper?) and passed each new acquaintance along to the rest. Names turned into people who were as interesting and open in person they were in the ether. Conversation flowed, more stories told, hugs exchanged, delight in one another’s company was evident. As we shared the day’s experiences, I was aware of a strong spiritual current flowing. The Farm is a special place, created by the love and energy of two remarkable people.

By the time we gathered in front of the barn for group shots, the connection was pretty palpable. Standing there I had the strongest feeling of linkage to everyone. While I joked about this feeling like the group shot at the end of A League of Their Own, and “there’s no crying in baseball” was bandied about, I felt replete, peaceful, my soul satisfied. What Jon had started was the real deal.

On the way home, guzzling down as much seltzer as I could after the day’s heat, I felt tired and jubilant and exhilarated. Taking a more southerly route back over the mountains, following some powerful rain storms as I went, it did not surprise me to see multiple rainbows over the valley mists and green of the mountain tops. Only fitting I thought, to mark our day. Sitting here this morning letting the words flow and telling my story, it hits me that I felt no great sense of parting, of regretful goodbyes yesterday. I’m pretty certain that’s because I know everyone is right here, in the group, flowing on. And Aggie is just fine.