Saturday, January 31, 2009

If You Could Be Famous For Anything, What Would It Be?

DBG: If you could be famous for anything, what would it be?
MARIE FOSTER: Heaven knows.
RITA BUTLER: Gettin’ up in the morning!
HELEN PETTEYS: Find out what causes cancer and cure it. It makes me so damn mad. They tell you a cure is coming, they tell you it’s just around the corner. But it isn’t.
RITA: It never is.
HELEN: They won’t put the money into it.
DBG: Celia, how about you?
CELIA FLATLEY: Oh god, nothing.
LEONA BELL: Don’t wanna be famous, huh?
JIM PERRY: BOCE bus driver. Those kids loved me.
LEONA: They’re not as well behaved today.
CELIA: They’ll smack you in the back of the head.
RITA: I never thought about bein’ famous –-
PHEBE BROWN: No, I didn’t either.
RITA: So I don’t know what I’d want to be.
PHEBE: Being a good teacher.
RITA: Havin’ a good sense of humor.
DBG: You mean being a comedian?
RITA: Well, I don’t know about bein’ a comedian.
DBG: What don’t you know?
RITA: I don’t know anything about bein’ a comedian.
CELIA: You have a great sense of humor though.
RITA: That’s what I said. What would you want to be famous for?
DBG: Interviewing you.
RITA: That don’t take much intelligence! (laughs)
DBG: It doesn’t necessarily take much intelligence to be famous.
DBG: There’s some dumb people that are famous. What do you think, Phebe, can dumb people be famous?
PHEBE: That depends on what you mean by dumb.
DBG: Not possessing great intelligence.
PHEBE: I’d say so.
RITA: You ask some crazy questions.
PHEBE: *(laughs)*
DBG: What do you mean? Isn’t this food for thought?
RITA: Ha! (laughs)
DBG: Don’t you go home and think about this?
RITA: I don’t even think about it when you’re sayin’ it!

(Conversation at the senior luncheon at St. Joseph's, Greenwich, NY, late 1990s.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Odd Numbered Years

It’s now the first week in the new year, January, 2009 and I’m about to go through something that happens every other year. As each new odd-numbered year comes into existence, it takes me longer to adjust to writing that new year, than when it’s a new even-numbered year. I’ve been aware of this situation (might it be a syndrome?) for a long time, back perhaps to my late teenage years. At this point it’s occurred to me that my behavior is a response to the belief that this is what happens to me, more than that it actually would happen on its own. I fear that I’ve set the wheels in motion for this minor numerical error by pointing out in advance that it’s what happens every time an odd-numbered year rolls into town.

I encounter my error mostly when writing a check. I write a lot of checks. Continuously numbered since I opened the account nearly twenty years ago, it’s up to over fourteen thousand now. (One place I was making a purchase had an automatic reading register that didn’t recognize a five-digit check number.) It’s the check writing that sets up the scenario for my mistake. But now this year, I’m even putting thoughts about this into writing and that’s tipping me back away from the error, and I’ve been writing 2009 consistently.

What I’ll miss about 2008 is the confluence of mathematics. It was the year that I turned 54, the same as the last two digits of the year I was born, 1954. In 2009 no one becomes the same age as the year they were born, as it’s always an even number (since it’s their birth year, multiplied by two). 2008 was also the year Norabelle turned 21. Reversing the numbers in each of our ages takes us both back to the same year, nine years ago, when I was 45 and she was 12. I pointed that out to her and asked how to figure out that out as a math problem. She proceeded to do so, making an “x” variable and writing it all out on a piece of scrap paper while we were at a party at a friend’s house near Boston over the holidays. I was trying hard to follow what she did, but between the holiday cheer and the mix of pride and amazement at witnessing her do this, I retained nothing but my question. And the little worksheet paper was lost.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.

Picture this scenario: You arrive at a small party, are introduced to someone who says a nice "hello." You begin conversing and two minutes into the conversation they toss out another "hello." Two minutes of more talk and yet another punctuation of "hello." Again two minutes later. And again.

Whether you call it wearisome, worrisome, or just plain stupid, I've been encountering just this sort of thing, albeit in a different form. I live in a very small town. It's quaint and relatively intact in terms of its older buildings. It's the sort of place that, when people drive through it they think, "This is quaint and relatively intact. Let's stop and see if there's a good restaurant, hotel, book store, and any antique shops." (The answers being yes, no, no, and one, respectively.) A state highway winds its way into the village, making a sharp left turn at the light in the center of town. All along this route, on about every fourth light post, there is a canvas banner proclaiming, "Welcome to Greenwich." That's where the overlay of the jabbering semi-lunatic comes in. An offering of "Welcome" is appropriate when entering the town, not on a continuous basis as you pass through.

The number of these banners was doubled a couple years ago when more light posts went up. However these use a smaller font and an image of a park bench by a tree. Given the height they're at and the simplification of the pictorial forms, these now welcome as you're leaving town, but with a noticeable dose of obfuscation. It's as if that lunatic has been handcuffed to you but has become barely audible, repeatedly whispering "hello," causing you to ask each time, "What? What?"

When did all these banners become necessary? I see similar ones in other towns, with just the names dropped in. The first welcome banners that showed up here (and are still hanging, now joined by their idiot cousin banners) have a backdrop image of a quaint village building. We have the real things right here! Why put up a clip art picture of a quaint townscape, when motorists can see the real things right out the windows of their car? Banner salesmen and the companies they represent must be having a field day. What one little town sees the next one wants, these being essentially efforts to scare some dollars into the coffers of the local businesses who struggle to survive in the face of questionably sound discounts at big box stores. A rather desperate ploy adopted by most every business on the main street was pitched to them by the local chamber of commerce that got them all to purchase (at a "discount") matching "open" flags. As if the reason people weren't stopping and buying was because they were confused as to whether or not the establishment was open, rather than the fact that there are too many country knickknack and consignment stores.

The proliferation of these banners suggests drunken town planning, with decisions having been made just before passing out. What makes them all the worse is that there have previously been some excellent decisions made. There are sturdy, professionally rendered historic-looking wooden signs at a few of the entryways into the village. These were erected after some banners were already up. But rather than take them down, more were added!

- David Greenberger

(originally published in MungBeing, November, 2006)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Most Expensive Tramps in Bloom

My creative and commercial endeavors over the past three decades have been, to the casual observer or international spy, a series of elliptical paths that sometimes overlap or intersect, but often seem to spiral off into outer space. From trying to market a product to send messages through mail on wood shavings, to writing scripts for animated cartoons, one thing just, well, leads to another.

In the mid-nineties my little, self-published magazine called The Duplex Planet, was adapted into a comic book series, Duplex Planet Illustrated. Years after publication ceased there was a comic convention held at a hotel in Manchester, Vermont. The guy who organized it, knowing I lived nearby, asked me if I wanted to appear. I did not. He then went on to offer me a table at no charge, where I could display the significant overstock of my discontinued comic, along with anything else I'd care to bring. With the rosy possibility of converting these boxes of assorted and ultimately fragile paper goods into hard cash, I came around. This could be good. Maybe great.

I went. It was not great. The large conference room was arranged into aisles lined with tables at which were seated various publishers, writers and artists, selling and signing their goods, most of which was super hero stuff. I should probably explain here that my comic, like my magazine, presented a range of stories based on my conversations with nursing home residents and a range of other elderly people. The connection between my comics and the world of caped adventure was limited pretty much to the fact that they were both produced on printing presses and utilized staples as a means of binding. It quickly became apparent to me that the attendees at this convention, focused on such things as the comparative flexibility of the joints of various action figures, were not going to be intrigued by my anecdotal explorations of the day to day comings and goings of relatively immobile old people.

A big name comic book personality had a table next to mine. Such was his popularity that the long line of rabid fans awaiting their moment with him, talked amongst themselves as if he himself had recently turned away an alien armada. His line of almost exclusively male fans went right past my table, effectively closing me off from any potential customer's view. These fans stood directly in front of me and tried not to make eye contact with me or my little cottage industry, lest their fantasies somehow get infected with visions of old people dancing in their heads. Only if I'd been giving out cupcakes frosted to resemble Wonder Woman's bustier would my being there have risen above the level of mutual discomfort into something more robust.

Then, lo and behold, a young man looked at the table, saw an issue of my Magazine and said, "Hey, that picture was on the cover of an album by Men & Volts!"

Here I should explain a few more things. What he was seeing was an image of a naked man, tactfully obscured by a post hole digging device he was using. This photo was from an issue of the 1950s nudist colony magazine, *Sunshine & Health*, and I had also used it for Men & Volts -- another one of my ventures which caused no distress to the workings of cash registers, but was a rock combo that had its origins as a Captain Beefheart cover band.

So you can understand why this woke me right up. “I was IN Men & Volts!” I exclaimed. This seemed to alarm him. "Oh, I've never *listened* to it!” he quickly set me straight. He explained that he worked for a cut-out company, which, if you don’t know, resells unsold albums to used record stores and deep discount bins -- the place where records go to die.

Even I had to admit that this made more sense. Regaining my footing, I immediately shifted from embarrassment to wheeler-dealer and leapt into action. I asked if the album from the mid-eighties, *Tramps in Bloom*, was the French version, with actual foil stamped lettering on the cover. He said it was. So I asked about buying some copies of this rare item, especially since at the bargain basement price I could turn them around handily for at least ten dollars each. The company didn't do any direct retail themselves, he explained, but he thought he could make some arrangements.

According to plan, I called the following week, but he wasn't in and I left a message. A week went by and I tried again. No call back, but I was a man with a mission and I persevered. On my third attempt I was told the guy no longer worked there. I explained my situation and this guy said he could take care of it. He thought there were about ten copies left. He’d let them go for two dollars each. You do the math: I said I’d take them all.

A week later a box arrived for which I paid about $18 which covered the postage and C.O.D.. It felt very light and upon opening found out why: there was only one LP enclosed. I called and it turned out that that was all they had left. The final result of my having reluctantly attended that comic convention was that I had paid more than anyone else ever had for a copy of my own record.

Monday, September 08, 2008

How Vowels Endure Winter

On a recent family cruise to Bermuda and the Bahamas I took it upon myself to write down the words “Erie” and Greenwich” repeatedly. While saying a word aloud over and over again in succession can turn it into sonic gibberish, writing the words did not obscure their meaning. The pair retained their status as information, representing a city and village. I tried to hold the pen in a relaxed manner, successfully forestalling writer’s cramp. This activity was not meant to be meditative, as it took some focus to keep my printing consistent.

The similarities and differences in these two words came to occupy much of my conscious mind. I’d made them unavoidable objects of examination. On a personal level, the primary similarity is that the largest part of my life has now been spent living in one or the other of them. Erie. Greenwich. They’re both two-syllable words, and they both employ the same vowels: two E’s and one I. But this is where the differences come in to play, allowing for a solid example of how English has absorbed a broad range of approaches to the construction of words. Both words have a long E sound, but arrive at them through different means.

For me, the most compelling fact is that Erie uses only one consonant in delivering its two syllables, while Greenwich has latched on to a half dozen. Thinking about each name in relation to the geography where that municipality is located opens the door for a metaphorical overlay. Erie, on the shores of the Great Lake which shares its name, can be a bracing place to be in the winter, as winds blow across the frozen waters. With but one R stuck near the center to barely keep them warm, E, E and I look exposed and vulnerable. Meanwhile, out in the rolling, protective hills of Greenwich, the same trio wrapped themselves in a pair of double consonants at the front at back ends, with an additional pair near the center, making for a warm, two-room shelter.

Words appear in my mind in upper and lowercase, though I print in all uppercase. I enjoy thinking of words as their shapes, and Greenwich offers a tidy little yard, with the taller end letters shading the row of seven within. My first name, when not busy reveling in its alternating consonant and vowel construction, also enjoys a similar sort of responsibility. Erie, short and with its height all at one end, looks powerful, like a locomotive. That’s a connection I may have made in my youth because of the General Electric plant there where my father worked and which still makes those mighty train locomotives to this day.

- David Greenberger

(originally published in my column "I Still Feel Like Myself," Main Street #56, 2006)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This Is The Duplex Planet

In 1979, a year after graduating from art school in Boston, I took a job at the Duplex Nursing Home, where I worked for a couple of years as an activities director. There I found not only a rich pool of potential friends, but also recognition of something in myself: a long-standing interest in capturing, through the written word, the character of a person—in particular elders.

Oral history has a valuable place in our culture, but that isn't what I'm looking for. I don't see old people as merely windows on their past. No matter how much I’m told about events that predate my life, I'll never be able to go there. On the other hand I do hope to grow old.

Most of the important decisions we make about our lives, from career choices to whether or not to have a family, are made from observing what other people do in these situations. When it comes to aging, our glimpses of the process are primarily limited to watching family members grow old. Witnessing the aging and decline in older generations can't help but draw attention to one's own mortality. Furthermore, having known these elders over the course of an entire lifetime, it's hard not to mourn the loss of who they used to be.

I can trace my interest in befriending elders back to a trip I made to Palm Springs in the mid-seventies where my grandmother would spend the winters with her elder sister. This visit was notable because of time spent with her neighbor, Herb Feitler. Herb and Hannah Feitler had been childhood friends of my grandmother. During my time there, Herb and I made several excursions into the surrounding desert communities, mostly stopping at flea markets. I was in my mid-twenties, and to me, hanging out, driving around and becoming friends with a guy in his late seventies was the height of exotica. He wore one of those cloth fishing hats that I associate with Jack Klugman, Norman Lear or Woody Allen. Herb was authentically who he was and that simply connected with me.

When I returned home to Boston, Herb and I stayed in touch through occasional letters and postcards. Though I didn't recognize it at the time, what was so striking to me about meeting Herb was that I never knew him before. I had no familial connections or past history with him. Unanticipated and unforeseen, our friendship was borne out of a chance confluence. He was an engaging contrast to my grandmother, with whom I had a clearly delineated (and ultimately rather limited) relationship, based solely on the grandmother-grandson dynamic. Herb became my friend.

I moved to upstate New York from Boston twenty-two years ago. The Duplex Nursing Home has long since closed its doors. As with any of my friendships, with the passing of time (especially if they're no longer living) many of those residents show up in my dreams. What began as an interest has become my life's work. I set aside the brushes and canvases that had been my focus before, during and briefly after college. I found my voice as an artist, in a different medium. Words fit me like a better-tailored suit. First I created a little magazine called The Duplex Planet, and subsequently book collections, a comic book adaptation, CDs and performances, all based on my relationships and conversations with a range of elderly people. My Washington County neighbors and trips to other parts of the country are now the source for my work and ongoing friendships.

We already know the obvious things that old people have in common with each other; I want to know what makes them individuals. The more people I meet, the more different they seem from each other. Amid all these differences there is room for us all.

- David Greenberger

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My Paris Map

Paris, the city of lights. My daughter, Norabelle, is there for the entirety of her junior year of college. We went to visit her in January, renting an apartment for our ten day stay. It was in a five story building on Rambuteau, a block or so from the Pompidou Center and near the edge of the Marais.

This is Norabelle's world, all the more so since she speaks the language and I don't. She knows her way around. These circumstances dispensed with the dynamic of the parent being the one who holds the knowledge and the child as the one who learns. We saw all manner of compelling, historic places and ate great foods in Paris, but the thing that I feel will be a deathbed memory for me was walking a dog.

Norabelle has a room in an apartment with a woman who has grown children and takes in a student each year. We walked the twenty minutes or so from our place to hers, as the dog, Saba, needed her evening walk and no one else was home. I knew how to get there from the map she’d drawn us a couple nights prior, but this time learned shortcuts and side streets with Norabelle leading the way. We got there, walked up the few flights of stairs, with Saba audibly scrambling about, relieved when she heard the key in the door. It was drizzling so lightly that it required no rain gear, but gave a shiny glow to the night lit streets. We walked around the block, just Norabelle and me and the dog on her leash.

Life’s ordinary moments allow for our personal emotional overlay to give them their meaning, whereas extraordinary events are generally defined by their own particular dramatic arc. I find that it's not the extraordinary things that stay with me and move me more and more through the years, but the ordinary things. The small map Norabelle drew for us to get to her apartment is now in a big envelope labeled “Paris, 2008.” Going for a nighttime walk on some of those same streets with my daughter and a little longhaired white dog created potent images that will flicker in my mind for the rest of my days.

(Originally published in MungBeing magazine #19, April, 2008)