Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Uncle Ted

Ted and my father were fraternal twins, yin to the other's yang.  He was my Auntie Mame, the relative whose glamorous life held out the promise of adventure beyond the boundaries of home while rooted in the family.  Ted was an actor on Broadway, a pianist who had accompanied Paul Robeson, the host at an exclusive inn on Cape Cod, an expatriate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and gay.

Mame was the subject of a book by Patrick Dennis in the 1950s about his eccentric aunt, and it was made with much success into a play, musical and film. I saw Angela Lansbury in the role in the 1960s.  By then, inspired by our adventures in Mexico together in 1962, I'd moved to Manhattan to become a writer.  Ted, on the other hand, fell ill with emphysema during our trip and moved to San Diego with George, his partner of 20 years, where they bought a house with money he'd inherited from his wealthy grandmother.

Dreams do not always turn out as planned.  The stories and poems I penned over the years have amounted to little and the only writing I've really done is here in this blog for the past half dozen years.  Ted, terrified of suffocating, took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969. George succumbed to the alcoholism that had long plagued him.  He willed their house to a neighbor, who told me it was totally trashed, and his book collection to me.  Several boxes arrived at my house in Santa Cruz and they contained original manuscripts of stories George had written in the 1950s for shabby imitations of Playboy. There was also a heavily underlined copy in Ted's meticulous handwriting of P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous."

I don't know who was born first.  Ted was named Edward after their father, and his brother was encumbered with Homer (later nicknamed Humpy by his friends), the name of his grandfather. They were born in Toledo, Ohio, where their grandfather had been a successful inventor.  He discovered a process to extract turpentine from pine tree stumps, and in Toledo he piped steam through pipes under the sidewalks to melt snow (old-timers still remember "Yaryan heat").  After their father died of TB while working at the family business in Mississippi, they moved with older sister Margaret to a mansion outside St. Petersburg, Florida, where their new step-father was a speculator during the land boom years.  Soon they had three new siblings, brothers Frank and Mac and sister Nan.

My father was bigger and athletic, while Ted was thin and often in ill health.  He learned to play the piano by ear and fooled listeners into thinking he could read music.  Neither boy got along well with their step-father.  And when Margaret, for reasons lost in the mist (she died in 2001), got into a dispute with her grandmother, somehow she and my dad were cut out of her will while the beloved Ted remained (this provided the inheritance to buy that house in San Diego). He was always good with old ladies!

Homer and Ted were room mates the summer dad worked as a life guard at Cape May, New Jersey.  Later I was told by my father that Ted couldn't be gay because he had been worried that he had gotten a girl pregnant.  My father soon got married and I was born in Toledo not long before Hitler invaded Poland.  During the early years of the war, Ted was stage director for a touring version of "Othello," starring Paul Robeson, and at after hours parties he would accompany the black actor/singer on the piano. Robeson was persecuted during the McCarthy period for his political beliefs and support for civil rights. After Ted joined the Army where he worked as an entertainer, he directed a version of "Little Women" with soldiers in drag for the troops at Camp Lee, New Jersey.  It made the pages of Life Magazine, and it was during that production that he met George, one of the actors. Dad's hand had been maimed in an industrial accident which confined his war service to Coast Guard duty on Lake Erie. After the war we moved to North Carolina, and were living in a small town in the western hills when Ted came to visit us in 1952 (the photo at the top of this post).

It was family legend that Ted was an actor on Broadway.  At the age of 12 I was madly in love with the movies and my dream was to become an actor, or better yet, a movie star. When dad told him of my ambition, Ted's advice was: Drown him!  He came to visit us during rehearsals for Horton Foote's play, "The Chase," directed by Jose Ferrer.  I later learned that his understudy for the role he played was Jason Robards.  In 1945, Ted had been cast by Ferrer in "Strange Fruit," a play made from Lillian Smith's novel about an interracial romance.  It was named after a song sung by Billie Holiday.  When "The Chase" opened, Ted told me that he got a playbill autographed for me by its stars, Kim Stanley and John Hodiak; sadly it never arrived in the mail. Neither play directed by Ferrer, unlike his Broadway hit "Stalag 17," lasted for more than two months. The movie version of "The Chase" in 1966 starred Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda in lead roles. Robert Redford and Robert Duvall were also featured and Richard Bradford reprised my uncle's role.

According to Ted, he was never more than a character actor, and after "The Chase" closed he gave up on Broadway.  He worked at the Queen Anne Inn on Cape Cod in Chatham, Massachusetts, where he was an all-around host and maitre d'hotel.  In the evenings he played piano for the guests.  And each winter when the snows came to the Cape, Ted would go to Cuernavaca where he bought a small row house on an alley in the northern part of the city.  He decorated it with indigenous art and his closest friends were Joaquin and Aurora, owners of a paint store, with whom he played canasta weekly and watched the bullfights on their TV.  He seemed fluent in Spanish, but he admitted to only knowing lots of modismos, expressions, enough to fool even the natives. Ted was also acquainted with the most celebrated expats there, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who had directed her mansion in Japanese modern, and actress Helen Hayes, as well as a number of "remittance men," many of them gay, who were expats supported by their wealthy families so long as they stayed far away from the ancestral home.

In Berkeley that fall of 1961 I was on the verge of flunking out of the University of California and had stayed in bed during the final week of the fall term during final exams reading science fiction.  I wrote Ted about my confusion and he responded with an invitation to come talk about it in Cuernavaca. My father took me to the bus station and I sensed some reluctance on his part to let me go, perhaps even jealousy.  Like Ted, I had been a sickly child, prevented from playing sports because of asthma.  I felt I had disappointed my father.  Their sister Margaret encouraged my interest in literature and told me often how much I like Ted I was (She had married an aspiring writer who became a refrigerator salesman and an alcoholic).  My younger brother, on the other hand, took after our dad.  The ride from LA to the border, and on a Tres Estrellas de Oro bus from Tijuana to Mexico City was the most fabulous journey of my life up to that time.

Ted met me at the bus depot and took me to a small hotel where we talked long into the night.  I felt an immediate connection, as if he understood me in ways my parents could not.  I suspected he was homosexual although we never discussed it while he was alive.  Those were closeted times.  It was rarely mentioned in my family.  Uncle Frank's wife Mary adored Ted and got furious if the possibility was ever entertained by anyone.  Ted and I went by bus the next morning over the mountain to Cuernavaca and I moved into his one-room house (plus kitchen, bathroom and patio).

I had brought my typewriter and he asked a friend to make me a writing table. I sat under the large Jacaranda tree in the middle of the patio which dropped its purple blooms onto the keys when I wasn't fruitlessly trying to create the great American novel, or at least a story or poem.  George was away (on a bender, it was implied), and we were joined by their friend Alicia from New York who had retired after a career with the Girl Scouts.  She was a short, dark and animated lady, probably a lesbian although it was never mentioned.  The three of us traveled south by bus from Cuernavaca, to Oaxaca, Tehuantepec and Salina Cruz, and across to Coatzacoalcos and Veracruz, before returning home.  It was a wonderful journey and I had my fill everywhere of ripe watermelon and fresh shrimp.

During my stay with Uncle Ted we attended a couple of parties held by remittance men and their friends.  One was in a house carved out of part of the old cathedral and restored.  Beside the pool a dance troupe from the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City twirled torches and performed an Aztec ritual for guests. At the home of the business manager for Helen Hayes, I swam in a large pool decorated with gold coins. Between that house and the one next door there was a small slum where the domestic help lived. While I was swimming, guests arrived on the lawn beside the pool in a helicopter provided by the Mexican Air Force.

After I returned home to Southern California following my two months as Uncle Ted's protege, in many ways I felt like a failure. I was 21 but still a naive kid, fearful of the looks given me by the Indians at the pulqueria on the corner, afraid to venture far on my own, and a poor student of Spanish. The confusion I felt about my life in Berkeley had only been temporarily abated.  On the trip I had not written anything halfway decent, save for a long poem about a train wreck in which many peasants were killed or injured that profited dramatically from their misery.  Ted had encouraged a romance with a young girl who worked in her parent's store near our house, and he also prodded me to go after another girl I met at a party who worked in the diplomatic corps. Both came to naught.  I preferred to fantasize about a girl back in California whom I learned, after I returned home, was engaged to marry a close friend.  I was an usher at their wedding.

But being with Ted in Mexico did give me a look at wider possibilities.  I didn't have to go back to school and settle down into middle class life like my parents.  After recovering from a bout of hepatitis (bad water on the bus ride home, I deduced), I set out on a cross-country train journey with my typewriter in tow to New York where I got in touch with Ted's friend Alicia.  She introduced me to her nephew Alan and I was given a temporary home in the Greenwich Village loft he shared with his artist friend David.  Without Ted that never would have happened. Another guest in the loft was a car salesman named John from England, and we got to know Manhattan together.  This first foray into New York lasted only four months.  A year later my first wife and I returned to New York for more adventures and the following year we moved to London where we shared our first apartment in Baron's Court with that same John.

Thanks, Uncle Ted, for your continuing influence on my life, and for being my Auntie Mame.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A House is not Always a Home

I was the owner of a house for abut a minute. Then the marriage fell apart and I ran off with my wife's buyout offer.

Home ownership is a key pillar in America's civil religion.  It's also a component in what it means to be a husband, a father and a man.  Not only the poor are homeless.

Owning a home was the goal touted for veterans after the second world war.  My father served in the Coast Guard on Lake Erie because he'd lost a couple of fingers in an industrial accident and the other services wouldn't take him (in later years he was unable to join the Elks or the Lions club because he couldn't perform the club handshake).  When he was hired to sell plastics in the south as a traveling salesman after the war's end, my parents bought a tiny house in Greensboro, borrowing money from relatives for the downpayment.  I was eight and I loved the big back yard with a tree I could climb. No more rentals like the apartments they'd had in Toledo.  My mom and dad traded up for the rest of their lives, buying houses in western North Carolina, Atlanta, Southern California and Florida.  After my mother died, my brother and I split the sale price for her cinderblock home. He bought an apartment and I spent my share on travel.

I was raised on cowboy movies and science fiction and the prospect of owning property, not to mention having a wife and children, never appealed.  I wanted a life of adventure.  The fact that paying rent produced no equity did not bother me.  I shared houses with friends who'd taken the plunge and noted their possessive joy, but it failed to change my mind.  House ownership was a complicated affair that chained one to an object that was a domineering mistress.

Women need a nest more than men, according to my understanding of sexual difference, and my first two wives were persistent in their desire to get a house.  Fortunately, I never saved enough money nor made a large enough salary to fill that need.  Whatever excess was available I preferred to use for travel (London 1964-66, Hawaii and Florida in the 1980s).

When my second wife received an substantial inheritance from a distant relative whom most in the family considered an oddball, all resistance faded.  My daughter and I found a house on a hillside in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was perfect.  It was surrounded by redwoods and fir trees, and had been enlarged from a cabin built by a friend, a piano player who taught music for years to prisoners at Soledad.  He and his wife, a stewardess with a drug problem, had a deaf child and when their marriage collapsed, he had to sell the property.

My good credit allowed us to finance a third of the cost of the house with two-thirds coming from the inheritance.  My wife began gardening big time, and she bought a hot tub.  A tiny cabin up the hill from the house became my book-lined study and it was there that I wrote most of my Ph.d. dissertation about the movement in California to save ancient redwood trees in the first state park. We were living in paradise, but time was running out.  She was particularly displeased when I refused to climb up on the roof to remove the leaves and clean out the gutters.  She loved hardware stores; I found them dreadfully boring.  A relationship that began when she admired my poetry which I read one evening in the restaurant where she was a cook was heading for disaster.

I don't have pictures of the house because I left all my photos behind when she told me she wanted to live alone.  The photo I took above is of one of the many Victorians in Santa Cruz where I visited not long before Halloween in 2010.

After the split, my daughter accused me of threatening to take away the house that she and her brother hoped someday to inherit from their mother who at that point held the purse strings.  They stayed with her and I went through a succession of rooms in the dwellings of friends before finding a secure rental in a pool house near the beach. I learned that my soon-to-be ex-wife expended considerable effort in getting the lowest possible estimate on the value of the house so as to lower the amount she needed to pay me to give up my half.  Her check for $20,000 provided traveling money for a couple of years. Her next husband was a plumber who knew his way around the hardware store and who installed a new wood-burning stove for her.  He also taught her to surf.

My son and his wife live in a palatial spread next to vineyards in the foothills of Sonoma County. He worked hard and was successful early in life when he and his wife made the decision not to have children.  They fill their rooms with dogs and cats, some living out their lives in the comfort of a house most people can only dream about.  It's basically a one-bedroom house with a couple of spare rooms over the garage, with a connected living room and dining room big enough to throw a large party.  I'm happy that someone in my lineage can have the chance to experience living in a 21st century plantation, but I found the small guest room upstairs fulfilled all my needs.  If my world here collapsed for any reason, it might be possible to retire there surrounded by grape vines and boutique vintners.

Now that I live in Thailand, I frequently run into expats who retain property back home which helps to fund their retirement (or escape) in Thailand.  Others talk of the condos they've purchased at prices far lower than they'd pay in the U.S. or England, or Denmark.  I've met people with maids and penthouse gardens.  My sister-in-law's boyfriend has put money down on a condominium that has yet to be constructed.  My wife would be very happy if we could figure out how to buy a place.  Jerry, who used money from writing to purchase a farm in Mendocino back in the 1970s, now visits his farm in Surin once a month where his wife stays to raise rice and pigs and they live in a house he built that is ostentatious enough to tell the villagers for miles around that a farang is in residence.

Social Security (which may be threatened when the U.S. government is forced to default on its bills in several days' time) and the small amount I earn from teaching English to monks will not permit me to share my wife's dreams, even if I didn't still have an aversion to owning anything so grand as a house and land or even a small condo.  I've always understood the practicality of buying over paying rent, and I feel the negative social pressure from being a man who lacks property.  But for now, this home of mine of less than 40 square meters, in which I've lived now for four wonderful years, will have to suffice.

What's the difference, then, between a house and a home?  At a bare minimum, I'd say that a house is a material structure and a home is more of a state of mind.  "Home" can be a wonderful metaphor that, for example, Brother David Steindl-Rast uses for his description of union with God which he sees as kind of a going home.  Graham Nash wrote this lovely song about living in a house in Laurel Canyon for several years with Joni Mitchell, but he is most certainly talking about a home.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Pissin' in the Wind

When I was a young man I used to be able to write my name by peeing in the dirt.  Sometimes my friends and I would have a contest to see whose stream could reach the highest point on a wall. The ability to piss higher, farther and longer was a sign of one's status in the teenage mafia. Even the girls learned a technique to pee while standing to show they were one of the boys. Holding one's pee would be a test of manhood.  "My teeth are floating" was a bit of braggadocio uttered while someone manfully delayed release.  A friend we all admired would hold the tip of his penis until it blew up like a balloon and then would let go his tsunami of pee.  Applause all around.

Urination and defecation may be the obligations that unite us as a species.  Asians are perhaps a little less uptight about it. In India and here I see men peeing often by the side of a road (I suppose women need a bush).  Although in Mexico I remember seeing an old lady spread her legs and her ankle-length dress to piss on the dirt of the alley where I was living. A recent YouTube video laughed at a mom for letting her young son pee into a plastic bag at a McDonald's.  Before I came to Bangkok I read that commuters here spent so much time in traffic that they needed portable potties. In Luis Bruñel's 1974 film "The Phantom of Liberty," people at a dinner party sit on toilets and occasionally retire to a small room to eat.  This reversal of habits is unsettling.

Old people think often about what goes in and comes out of the body, and how smoothly the process progresses.  In her last days my mother spoke of her need for a "stool softener," and when I visited her a couple of months before she died, she had an "accident" and refused to let me help her until after she cleaned the carpet.  A sign that my grandfather had to be moved into a retirement home was his inability to control his bowels.  For the young who poop and pee thoughtlessly, such attention to what should be natural is inexplicable.

The prostate gets in the way of a sleep-filled night.  This walnut-sized organ in males evolved to produce liquid to protect sperm, and like a donut it surrounds the urethra coming out of the bladder. In older men it becomes enlarged for various reasons and slows the stream of piss to a dribble.  Since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer eleven years ago, I have become an observer of the attenuated flow.  Lying down increases the need to get up and inhibits the bladder's ability to empty.  During the day however, I can almost pee normally (although I could only write the first letter of my name and not the whole kit and kaboodle).

I won't strain the reader's attention to mention the operation of my bowels, safe to say that "Bangkok Belly" from either tainted food or water can complicate the process.  When my stomach began to balloon with age, I determined that more regular elimination might keep the waist in check.  But this was a theory that never got off the ground.  At some point my innie became an outie and I found only drawstring pants would avoid the over-the-belt look.    If you Google my name you might find someone who won a beer belly contest with the look to go with it.

Jerry Jeff Walker wrote "Pissin' in the Wind" as a pessimistic antidote to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," the anthem of the 1960's antiwar movement.  For Jerry Jeff, the best intentions can lead to naught.  I think he's on to something with this thought.  As I survey the world scene today, an almost mindless exercise with a computer and wifi, I see few signs of hope.  The efforts of capitalists and well-meaning political and environmental activists alike lead to universal blowback, the unintended consequences of both imperialism and good deeds.  Blaming the other satisfies no one.  There are health faddists who believe that drinking one's own urine can counteract the carcinogens produced by our industrial way of life, but I won't go there.  "Piss on it" is a blunt put-down, but doing it might put out a fire (that is, if you're young and your stream rages like Niagara Falls).

(Yes, that is me in the photo above, peeing off a cliff in Wisconsin.)