An Artist's Life

Maslow knew pyramids, and art.

I have no trouble believing that art imitates life, and if I'm in the right mood I can even wrap my mind around the idea that life imitates art. The third possibilitylife is artlurks outside the boundaries of my modest existence. Although I've been told my ketchup-on-canvas paintings are priceless, no one has offered money or otherwise expressed a desire to own one.

This, of course, brings me to possibility number four: Art Is Life! It makes so much sense, especially when I think about Abe Maslow and his pyramid. I don't know about you, but all the pyramids I made fell down in the first stiff breeze, so I figure Abe must have been pretty good with his hands. A first-rate artist in his own right, he immediately understood that plywood can be painted, thus providing a smooth surface on which to jot down his theories concerning human motivation.

But the concept really burst into flame when I saw what Craig had done on Abecedarian. His graphic representation of the art world perched on an old rug, supported by a trumpeting pachyderm massaging the neck of a large turtle is disturbing, but in a good way. What's good for the goose is good for the gander; sometimes we just need to look life squarely in the eye without turning red, like Erik.

If there was one thing the Vikings cherished it was sturdiness, especially in their turtles. Riding into battle on a turtle is embarrassing already, so the last thing you want to worry about is a stiff neck. But as long as there are elephants willing to help support the arts, life will go on.

I think that's all Craig was really trying to say.


Ask Odin

The path of least resistance. It's an old saw, I know, but twice inspired, once shy holds as much water today as ever. Maybe more, if the beaker is emptied after every squall. But even amid the squalor of subsuburban life there's a place for the shy person, and that place has a name, and its name is mud. Spring showers may come and go, but in the aftermath of that grand equation known as Ohm's Law, mud is a useful balm that soothes away the hours before the medics arrive.

Leaving no unsightly stains on the rumpled fabric of our lives, mud clings like a thirsty leech to the edge of lightning's teacup, hiccupping away the discomfort of many a dull morning on the roof, pole in hand, waiting for the clap of thunder that so often spells curtains, two encores, and a trip to the little green room below the stage.

And so it goes, day after day, night after night, one foot in front and two behind the scrim that hangs, like rain clouds, from the gutters and downspouts that soon will run full of Odin's overflow. To the rooftops! To the rooftops! I hear them still, the little wretches, calling through the keyholes and lox, their mouths filled with bagels and creamed cheeses from the other side of town.

The question, then, isn't so much one of voltage multiplied by current, or which leads to sufficient power for toasting bread before company arrives. Conversely, the answer isn't so much one of resistance, or how many electrons it takes to cover the roof with negative attention.

Go ask Odin. He'll tell you.


Knusper the Angry Toast

Angry white bread Knusper was angry. It wasn't bad enough that he was just another slice among slices, pasty white and tasteless, with no more nutritional value than the jelly beans in the cupboard above the stove. He had been watching the calendar himself, knowing this day would come. And now it was here, having arrived with ominous precision at exactly midnight, and not one second more.

"This is bad," said Knusper, scanning the kitchen for omens. "This is very, very bad."

The phone rang. Knusper spun into the crouching position he had seen, day in and day out, in all the martial arts films. The phone rang again. Knusper screamed, and then the world went black.

"That's correct," said the faraway voice. "Paraskevidekatriaphobia. We see it all the time. Well, not all the time, exactly. On the thirteenth, mostly. Worse on Fridays. Quarantine. Quarantine."

Knusper opened one eye. The voice was familiar, yet impossibly smooth. Like peanut butter, Knusper thought as he peered over the lip of the toaster. He couldn't see the smooth-voiced man, but he knew that asking questions would only give him away. Not smart, thought Knusper, shaking his head and opening his other eye.

"I know you're there!" he shouted.

Nothing. Knusper eyed the lever on the side of the toaster. He'd watched the other slices disappear, two at a time, but the pressure had been too much for him. He'd lost consciousness, and when he came to there was no proof of anything. A few crumbs, but crumbs aren't proof. They're just crumbs.

"Well," said Knusper, "I'm toast."

It wasn't at all what he had expected. No angels, no guys with beards and long hair, and most of all, no white robes. In fact, there was no observable whiteness no matter which way Knusper turned. There was only music, and for the first time, Knusper felt the music.

"Feels good, doesn't it?"

Knusper nodded. He didn't turn to see who had spoken; he knew the voice was his own.

"No wonder it felt so wrong," said Knusper.

"I know," said the other voice. "It's not easy being white."

"Feels so wrong it can't be right!" sang Knusper.

"Lucky day?" asked the voice.

"Lucky day," said Knusper, and then he danced.



guh guh guh guh guh guh gesundheit Learning to speak and understand a foreign language, it's said, is best undertaken during the early years, while the language-processing apparatus is still fresh and relatively unencumbered by the patterning that ultimately shapes our communication. It's said, too, that the most effective method is immersion in the culture and language of interest; rote memorization of foreign words and phrases doesn't work nearly as well.

I can testify to the veracity of both arguments, having been born into the language and culture of German immigrants, themselves abruptlyand, I'm sure, jarringlyimmersed in the American language and culture well past the age at which such a thing might come easily. Although I've never considered English a "second language," the first five years of my life would have been so heavily influenced by the language and customs of my family that it wouldn't be entirely meaningless to ask which language came first.

As is so often the case, the most meaningful answer probably lies somewhere between the two poles. It's more likely the languages were absorbed in parallel, owing not only to the immigrants' facility with English, but to the daily imperative resulting from their own immersion in the language and culture of America. You can't talk the talk if you don't walk the walk, and both are difficult when your pants are full.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when the speech problems began, but I know I hadn't yet cleared my fourth year of grammar school. We had only recently returned from a six-month stay in Germany, where virtually everything I had learned in life became the object of my classmates' derision. They particularly objected to my tainted interpretation of their native tongue; they said I didn't know how to "cut the mustard." Many of them carried small plastic squeeze bottles containing a powerful mixture of red pepper and other irritants, which they discharged into the classroom whenever the teacher called on me to answer an especially challenging question. At the time, it hadn't yet occurred to me that gesundheit could be used for more than mere sarcasm. I didn't know it might amount to a curse that would confound me for years before it ran out of gas and sputtered off into the weeds on the outskirts of town.

At first I tried to draw attention away from my speech impediment by pointing to the window while vigorously nodding my head. This worked for a time, but eventually the teacher caught on and made me keep my hands in my pockets whenever it was my turn to get up and write something on the chalkboard. I began inserting extra syllables in words in the hope of creating momentum, so as to propel my speech outward, away from my mouth. But the effort overwhelmed my constitution, leaving me red-faced and vibrating, and with even more of a load in my already overloaded knickers. No matter how much I tried to prevent it, my language was nothing more than an incongruous mix of English and German words, with "guh" taking the place of glottal stops.

Looking back on it now, it isn't difficult to understand what happened. Two dissimilar languageseach with its own rules of syntax, grammar and spellingsimultaneously deposited in the same space have no other recourse. They will go to war. Eventually one will emerge victorious, but in the meantime there will be carnage, and there will be chaos, and even small dogs won't be able to cry havoc without tripping over their own tongues in the process. This, I believe, is exactly what happened to me.



Staff of life When I awoke this morning, David Byrne was singing in my head.

. . . take my money, my cigarettes, I haven't seen the worst of it yet . . .

I remembered that hopelessness is a variable quantity, depending on who's doing the measuring and how the measuring device is graduated. Held against the backdrop of the Great Depression, our spiraling fortunes take on the shades of grey we remember from photos in textbooks, but those were different times. The faces in breadlines are colorful now, or would be, but for the absence of breadlines.

Today's bread is different, not only in flavor, variety, and color, but in the way it's distributed to those who measure hope one peanut-butter and jelly sandwich at a time. On a good day, the lines strain against the racks of greeting cards; on a bad day they reach only the nail clippers and gum. As time adjusts inventories toward the needs of the many, a more modest kind of hope will replace the camcorders and leather loveseats on the graduated scale of hopelessness, one peanut-butter and jelly sandwich at a time.