Tuesday, February 21, 2017

First Sweden, Now Russia

“It’s just not right,” I said, as I often do, to Lady. “First there were the tragic events in Sweden, which caused me to search endlessly on the internet, to make sure that ABBA was unaffected….”

“But nothing happened,” said Lady.

“Exactly,” I told her. “And ‘nothing’ is a very terrible thing, fully and as potentially dangerous as ‘something,’ which can also cause untold anguish. Indeed, I have suffered through ‘nothing’ thousands if not millions of times in my life. I sit, for example, at my computer, preparing to emblazon the world with my words, and what happens?”

“Let me guess,” said Lady.

“I look around my apartment, and where have all the intentions of doing a little cleaning….”

“I do understand,” said Lady. “At any rate, the Swedes are quite all right. Although I’m sure they’re grateful for your concern….”

“So if that wasn’t bad enough, I now have a monga.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in monga,” said Lady. “You once described it as a mythical though dreaded disease occurring when one raindrop descends on a Puerto Rican.”

“That’s profoundly politically incorrect,” I told her, “which probably means that yes, I did say it. Anyway, whether I believe it or not, here it is. In that sense, it’s just like the political situation, or perhaps the terrible events in Sweden. I can’t believe Donald Trump, so why shouldn’t something have happened in Sweden, even though I don’t believe….”

“That makes no sense,” said Lady.

“Exactly,” I told her.

“Anyway, what I really should do, since Tuesday morning is the new Monday morning…”

“What?”

“Presidents’ Day,” I told her. “Anyway, I should get right down to work, even though what I really want is to go back to bed. But now it’s time to put aside our grief…”

“Grief?”

“Sweden,” I told her, “how it afflicts the mind, and indeed the spirit. Well, we have to carry on. Now then, there’s excellent news! An eye-stabbing flash of light in the vexing question of Russia and the Ukraine!”

“Yes?” asked Lady.

“You know, of course, that we have to move on. We can’t dwell on these dark events forever. Though I just read this, in The New York Times:”

In a Twitter post on Monday, he accused American journalists of glossing over a dark and dangerous situation in Sweden. “Give the public a break,” he wrote. “The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!”

“A courageous stand,” said Lady. “Wonderful to know that our president will not step down, or step back, or step wherever. The Swedes must be breathing a sigh of relief, knowing they have so ardent a champion in the White House….”

“One begins to wonder,” I told her, “if the atrocities in Sweden were all a red herring. Or perhaps it’s that damn FAKE NEWS media that is trying to deflect attention from Trump’s remarkable success, based on the well-oiled machine he has created from the ruble….”

“Marc, you’re wandering….”

“Russia,” I told her. “You remember, the little problem of Russia and the Ukraine. Though in fact, the Ukraine is considerably more affected….”

“Marc?”

“Anyway, we’re well on the way—quite far down the path, actually—to a true and lasting peace!”

“So what happened?”

“Well, here’s The New York Times again, if you trust that dirty rag….”

A week before Michael T. Flynn resigned as national security adviser, a sealed proposal was hand-delivered to his office, outlining a way for President Trump to lift sanctions against Russia.

“Whew,” said Lady. “Well, that’s definite progress indeed!”

“Mendacious tongues,” I said, “which are absolutely the worst tongues of all…”

“How they have afflicted me, my whole life,” said, nay cried Lady, “I hardly walk out the door, in the morning, and there they are!”

“Mendacious tongues,” I said, “with their corollaries, tainted minds, are questioning the whole affair, since the plan is put forward by a rather shady character, Felix H. Sater.”

“And what has Mr. Sater done, to earn his place in the shade?”

“Well, we can start with this:”

After the lawyers got involved, Trump said he barely knew who Sater was. But there is voluminous evidence that Sater, a Russian emigrant, was key to channeling Russian capital to Trump for years. Sater is also a multiple felon and at least a one-time FBI informant.  

“Lovely,” said Lady, “nice to know we’re getting help from multiple felons. Ah well, any port in a storm! OK, so why were the lawyers involved?”

“It all was a messy little business down in Soho,” I told her. “You know, after the string of bankruptcies, Trump got involved in building a luxury condo / hotel down in Soho, to the annoyance of all the artists down there. But the project hit some bumps, especially in the downturn of 2008 and 2009….”

“Well, well,” said Lady. “And any idea what the plan might entail? The plan to bring peace to the Ukraine and Russia?”

“Well, first the authors allege that they have incriminating stuff on the president of the Ukraine….”

“I recoil in horror,” said Lady, “though indeed it took me quite a moment to realize that I had. Never having recoiled for any reason, you know….”

“And then they go on to this:”

Essentially, his plan would require the withdrawal of all Russian forces from eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian voters would decide in a referendum whether Crimea, the Ukrainian territory seized by Russia in 2014, would be leased to Russia for a term of 50 or 100 years.

“How can you ‘lease’ a territory as large as the Crimea for 50 to 100 years? And why do I feel rather doubtful about the validity of any ‘referendum’ that might take place?”

“Well, it’s all very strange,” I told her. “Anyway, could I interest you in making a little donation to my latest charity? I’ll be going forward with it on Facebook in just a few minutes, but if you’d like to prime the pump, with a donation of 500 dollars or more, I’ll send you a complimentary T-shirt! Just my way of saying thank you….”

“And what would that be?”

“’I stand with Sweden!’’ I told her. “After all, if they can go against the Swedes, for God’s sake, who among us is safe!”

“Ahhh,” said Lady, “do you never rest, in your efforts to cozen the weary?”

“Never,” I told her. “In fact, I wake each morning, filled with dreams of cozening!”

Funny…

Well, she was here, just a minute ago….


 
 



    

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Rats--and the problem of Matthias Goerne

“All right,” I told her, “today’s problem is what to do about Matthias Goerne. I’ve finished up with Trump—I got him straightened around yesterday. So, once everybody gets on the same page—it takes awhile for some people to catch up with my lightning intellect—we’ll be entirely done with him! Poosh! Back to reality TV, where we can all safely ignore him!”

“Poosh?” said Lady. “What’s Poosh?”

“It’s the particularly squishy sound that Trump makes when he goes ‘poof,’” I told her. “No idea why, but there it is….”

“Well, I’m ready to move away from Trump,” said Lady. “In fact, haven’t I told you that this blog used to be a Trump-free zone? And then, all of a sudden, there he was! Just as he was on television, every time I turned it on, and on every magazine cover, every time I went to the grocery store. It got to be completely annoying….”

“Definitely time for Goerne,” I told her. “You remember what I told Naïa, all those years ago? Back before the rats….”

Naïa celebrated her fifteenth birthday with the announcement that she wanted a couple of rats for her birthday. She reported this quite casually at an art opening that we all attended.

“Ahh,” I told her, “and have you informed your landlord that you’ll be keeping rats?”

She chose not to respond.

“What about the health department?”

She examined a corner of the ceiling intently.

“And the department of sanitation?”

Began whistling Dixie!

So the rats arrived. But there was, as anyone could have imagined, a problem. For it turned—and please don’t inquire too much right here—that the sexes of the rats were disordered. The intention had been to create a unisex environment, or perhaps a homosexual environment. But it turned out that one of the rats was male. Or perhaps it was female—I don’t remember. Anyway, it was some unwanted sex.

“So we had to call the guy in the outskirts of Caguas,” said Lady. “And he got upset and complained, but he eventually came. But it took him so long, that he came at rush hour, and the traffic was terrible. And then he couldn’t find parking, so he was calling us every two minutes, threatening to turn around and go back to Caguas. So by the time he arrived, everybody was in quite a state….”

“Well, of course,” I told her. “What did you expect, when you agreed to go along with such lunacy? And whoever heard of a fifteen-year old girl wanting rats?”

“What’s wrong with rats?” asked Lady. “And what should she want?”

“A horse,” I told her. “Which would be entirely more sensible. You can keep it in the shower stall—it’ll be entirely content there….”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Lady. “And how would we shower?”

“Atop the horse,” I told her. “Thus solving two problems at once. Oh, and the water will whisk away any little waste the horse might have shed….”

Lady went off to paint some houses—her own personal variant of whistling Dixie.

So the man with the rats—or the rattor—arrived with an assortment of rats, all of the desired sex. Naïa, unable to make up her mind, chose two. Oh, and that’s in addition to the two she already had. So that left the odd rat, of the errant sex, but the rattor had the solution!

And that was?

Throw the damn rat over the balcony and go home!

Both Lady and Naïa were outraged.

“Well, it sounds like a perfectly sensible solution to me,” I told her. “After all, that rat was shop-worn. In fact, it was a used rat—and who’s going to buy that? Besides, the rat will have a perfectly splendid time in Old San Juan, with its many exotic restaurants and their attached dumpsters. Monday, it’s Vietnamese! Tuesday…”

Lady was outraged.

“You can’t have a rat eating out of a dumpster!” she snorted.

“That is precisely,” I began.

“So then Naïa began to tear up, and it was her fifteenth birthday, after all, so we decided: we will keep the rat, even with the aberrant sex…..”

“This is getting to be like the Trump presidency after all,” I told her. “It’s going on and on, and the sordid details keep getting worse and worse.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Lady. “Because we decided: the rat would have to be fixed.”

“Fixed?”

“De-sexed,” said Lady. “You know, castrated….”

“What!” I told her. “You’re actually going to spend good money….”

Well, there was a problem, of course. And that was: who would fix the rat?

“The vet up the street from the café just laughed,” said Lady.

“The vet up the street charges people just for walking past his shop,” I told Lady. “Anyway, now you see the advantage of a horse….”

“Well, so we finally found one,” said Lady, “though it was out on 65th Infantry….”

65th Infantry is a charming road, with only two little problems. First, every driver on the Eastern half of Puerto Rico is on it, stalled, and honking their horns. Second, it will then start to rain, and the road will instantly be completely flooded.

“You actually went out to 65th Infantry?” I asked her. “And did you get your will written? Your affairs sorted out? And why didn’t we know about this, so that we could have given a farewell party?”

“So we get to the vet,” said Lady, who has either learned from or taught to Naïa the fine art of ignoring, “and it turns out, yes! The vet will be happy to fix the rat!”

“Microsurgery,” I said, “though come to think of it, maybe he could do a job on Trump….”

Dirty look….

“Sorry,” I told her, “you know, it’s my King Charles’ head…”

She gives me the punch line.

“But it will cost a hundred bucks…..”

I’m speechless.

Fortunately, that doesn’t last long.

“You are absolutely NOT,” I begin.

“But then guess what,” Lady surges on. “It turns out that we’ve been to the vet before. In fact, that’s where we got Lorca!”

Federico García Lorca—in the rarified world of the Poets’ Passage, that’s a toy Chihuahua.

“And you know what? It turns out that we have a credit! They charged us for a medicine or a shot or something. Anyway, it was 90 dollars, and they kept it for us! Unbelievable!”

“Absolutely, since every one of those businesses on 65th Infantry is a den of thieves,” I told her.

“So now, it’s only going to cost us 10 bucks,” said Lady.

“And how much did you pay for the rat,” I asked.

“Well, that was only one buck….”

“Anyway,” I told her, “it’s not costing you ten bucks. You should ask for the ninety dollars back, get rid of the rat, and hold tight for a couple of days. Then I’ll go down to the bus depot, and pick up a couple specimens for Naïa.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Lady. “Naïa has fallen in love with that rat….”

She goes away, and I’m left thinking. Wasn’t today going to be the day to worry about Matthias Goerne? But then Lady reappears.

“Don’t tell Nico about the 100 bucks,” she tells me. Nico is her husband, a Frenchman. They like snails, but not rats.

“He might not understand,” she told me.

I go off, leaving the rats behind.


Now, what am I going to do about Matthias Goerne?   
  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What the President Knew? Really?

 I needed a reality check, last night, so I tried it out at dinner last night on Mr. Fernández:

“General Flynn called up the Russian ambassador and told him not to worry about the sanctions: Trump would take care of them. But Trump didn’t know a thing about the call, much less approve of it.”

Mr. Fernández just gave me a look.

I told you I needed a reality check, and that’s part of the story. But it’s more than that. I needed the answer to the question: why did we cede our government so easily, and so quickly?

Trump did what Trump does: he got the deal done. He’s been doing it ever since he first moved into Manhattan. Then, decades ago, the city was crumbling, the infrastructure was destroyed, crime was rampant, and the tax base eroded. So when Trump wanted to buy the Commodore Hotel, the city was more than happy.

I read about it in the book Trump Revealed; the details of the scheme escape me, but the essence is this. Trump had little money, and no history of doing a deal of that scope. Nonetheless, he was able to trick the city of New York into thinking he had financing (he sent them some papers, but they were unsigned), and also into giving him a 40-year tax break. Trump claimed that nobody else would have done the deal; in fact, several other developers did similar projects, without the gravy thrown in.

Trump, in short, is the grown if not matured version of the bully / show-off that you hated in junior high school. I get that, though I don’t like it.

What don’t I get?

I don’t get why everybody went along with it.

I tried to believe that the Republicans didn’t go along with it. In a sane world, having virtually every ex-president say that Trump was going to be a complete disaster….well, shouldn’t that carry some weight? And then came one outrage after another. Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns? We had just started to get upset, when he told us: not paying taxes meant he was smart.

It went on and on. He admitted he groped women, and then threatened to sue The New York Times. Finally, somebody acted like a grownup, and put him in his spot: the Times wasn’t defaming him, it was confirming his statements.

So then Trump sewed up the nomination, but surely the men (sorry, but there it is…men) in charge would prevent so disastrous a candidate from being chosen, right?

In fact, the convention was deeply disturbing. People who know Hillary are said to like her very much. But even if you don’t know her or don’t like her, can anything excuse the vitriol against her in the convention?

Lock her up????

Where was the convention held—Caracas? (Apologies to my Venezuelan friends….)

Nothing had been normal for a long time. Did it start when Obama was first elected, and then refused to enact his program? Remember all that time ago? Remember him trying to be the great conciliator, bring everybody to the table? Getting everybody who could be gotten onto the same page?

Remember what a bust that was?

They vilified the man, and would he respond? No—he kept on being calm and reasonable, and that drove them more nuts. So he produced his birth certificate and went on doing his best. Which wasn’t bad: the BBC reported that two polls had found that 60% of the public approved of Obama by the end of his term.

But the Republicans had the taste of blood in their mouth, and nowhere was it more evident than in their declaration that they would not replace the seat that Justice Scalia left vacant.

This was unprecedented. And did it matter how much the left howled? No, because who cared? The base of the Republican Party no longer responded to what The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN was saying. And worse, the Supreme Court itself did absolutely nothing. Did any of them speak out, to defend their institution? No, they were as mute as mules, with the one exception of….


Yup—Thomas got it.

So the Supreme Court snoozed away while its integrity got torn to shreds. Which meant and means that now we have no Supreme Court, because anything less than a unanimous decision is going to be suspect. And what, by the way, will happen if Trump decides to challenge the Ninth Circuit of Appeals’ decision on the illegality of Trump’s immigration ban? How will the Republicans react to a 4-4 decision, should it come to that? Then, the appeals court will be upheld—and how is that going to play? A constitutional crisis?

So the last six months have been a long, drawn-out and endless replay of that moment when, sitting frozen behind the steering wheel, you see the semi jump lanes and bear down on you.

It was unreal: the CIA, the FBI and everybody else and his brother said it. The Russians had interfered with the elections. And did anything Trump do or say indicate that they had not? Could anything be more blatant than Trump’s statements and actions? Or did we need to hear, “steal our vote!” shouted repeatedly at the convention, the way we heard, “lock her up!”?

So now it was that some sore losers—in fact the majority of voters—couldn’t get over the fact that the opponent won. And nobody said the obvious: this was a tainted election. The Russians screwed around with the most element of our democracy. We have to investigate, correct the situation, and do the election over. And right, this time.

This is what happens in junior high school, right?

But wait—it wasn’t just that Trump may or may not have been elected legitimately! In fact, Trump was conducting business before he had been sworn in! And so I sat around, one morning, and wondered: how could a president-elect summon every last ambassador home? Oh, and did any one of them say, “hey, you’re not my boss yet?” And where, dammit, was the boss? Because it’s time, Obama, to shoot a little of the spleen over at you.

It was, in fact, perhaps the most appalling sight of the whole election: Obama receiving Trump in the White House, Michelle serving tea (or whatever) to Melania. And what, by the way, was most shameful? This week, The New York Times had to chastise a female reporter who said, privately at a dinner, that Melania was a “hooker.”

Remember that old adage? If the question, “is she a lady” has to be asked, then you already have the answer? Sorry, but after you pose nude and handcuffed in a private jet for GQ magazine…well, the question of whether you’re a hooker or not becomes almost moot.

In short—absolutely everybody stood by and watched a sick fraud assume the presidency of the country through a fraudulent election.

So here we are. We are busy trying to wonder, as Bernie Sanders said on Facebook this morning, what the president knew, and when.

Know what?

I don’t give a flying eff what the “president” knew or when. I do give that eff about the fact that for the first time in my life, I had to watch somebody steal the election. And I had to watch us all watch him, while we did nothing.

It’s a little hard to imagine where this is going, but does anybody imagine that it’s good? And the Republicans—what are they going to do about this train wreck? Paul Ryan, of Janesville, Wisconsin? Saying that he “supported” Trump, late in the campaign, but that he would no longer “defend” him?

Hunh?

Well, it’s time to do what we have to do.

We have to get our ex-presidents together, from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama.

All of them.

And then they have to go to the Organization of American States.

Remember them? The OAS?

Well, I looked them up, and they can help! Here’s the description, from their website:

The right to universal suffrage by secret ballot is a cornerstone of the democratic system. It is imperative that citizens of every county be able to rely on electoral processes that are free, peaceful and transparent. The independent, impartial observation of elections lends transparency and confidence to the electoral process and is one of the basic tools the OAS has to help strengthen democracy in the region. The Organization also provides support in the aftermath of elections, helping countries in their own efforts to strengthen the electoral system and make it more transparent.   

Wow—nice to know!

I’m kidding, of course.

Wait—am I?

Who knows? But why do I feel that, like asking whether a woman is a lady, asking whether an election is fraudulent is…

…exactly the same thing?


Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Father--Gone but Still Appearing

I’ve written about my father before, in my book about my mother’s life and death. And I thought, of course, that I was done with him, my father. Jack, as we boys called him, died in 1993. By the time my mother was facing her own end in 2010, most of the people who knew Jack were gone. More startling, many of my mother’s friends, at the end of her life, had never known my father.

I was writing about Franny, my mother, who had decided to stop eating and drinking, and fast until her death. I was writing about my family, who warred over old grudges and new crises: two of the brothers wanted to give my mother the option of a quick death by helium. The third brother did not, and threatened (we felt) to call the cops. And I was writing about my father, since he had been the great love of my mother’s life, as well as the bedrock in all of ours. 

For me, the son, it was a terrible time. For me, the writer, it will never be better. So much was happening in my life at that time that nothing could prevent it spilling over into writing. What writer could ask for more? And so, in those heated days, I wrote the chapter on my father when I was travelling on a bus from Chicago to Madison. The bus travelled through Janesville, Rockford, and close to Jefferson Prairie, Wisconsin. My father himself had travelled through all of those places, though his journey took decades. In fact, on those many bus trips when I wasn’t writing, I would see the sign for the exit to the old farmstead: Shopiere Road. Forget the spelling—it was always pronounced SHOWpeer road.

Was it his grandfather or his great grandfather who had come over from Norway in the 1850’s or 60’s? I was told and I forgot during my youth and early adulthood; years later, I googled the Lutheran church where my grandmother’s funeral had been held, and the weddings of my cousins held as well.

That Norwegian Lutheranism stuck—to varying degrees—to that side of the family. Jack’s brother had religious tracts seemingly everywhere: in the bathroom by the toilet, in the barn, in the tractor. Jack never got the religion, but he couldn’t escape the morality that either went with it, or was behind it.

What am I trying to say?

He hated bastards. He hated people who cheated, cut corners, or put their own agenda first, at the expense of others. When he first came to Madison, World War II was winding down or had ended: there was still rationing of meat, however. And so when Jack got the tip that someone—a butcher?—was selling horsemeat, he ambushed the man. His weapon, as it would be for most of his life, was one of the five or six Leica cameras that he wound up owning.

The guy was sent off to prison: his parting words were along the lines of, “I’ll get you, Newhouse, when I get out!” It made my mother nervous, and so my father bought a pistol, which he kept in his sock drawer.

We laughed at him, of course—what kids wouldn’t? And we did point out that—since the bullets were kept locked up prudently somewhere else—Jack could always throw socks at the gun-wielding ex-con….

He went on. There was the police chief, Bruce Weatherly, who got into a tangle with the city council. The ante got upped and upped, and the tangle became a war. Jack knew the story from the beginning and through the multiple salvos back and forth. In the end—big surprise—the city council prevailed, but only after the chief, while drunk, crashed his car into a truck. And my father, of course, maintained that the police chief, who wanted to institute needed changes, had been—though pig-headed as well as drunk—right all along. And so the ex-police chief was licking his wounds down in Florida, or perhaps the southwest; he was hitting the bottle, as well. And one day, his wife could take her drunken / broken man no more. She shot him, killed him, and only narrowly escaped with her own neck.

I don’t remember the police chief’s name; I do remember (I think) that the wife / widow’s name was Inez. But I do remember what she said to my father when she blew through town, a few years later.

“You’re the only person in this town I came to see.”

(Years later, I met another and later chief of police, who told me that Weatherly ran a perfectly good police department, for the fifties. Of course, the department was running wiretaps on prominent figures, and one of the nuggets mined was about the daughter of a city councilman. The daughter was working as a prostitute somewhere in the west; who knew who that ever got played, if at all….)

Jack had grown up in lilliest of white environments. But I think he must have felt a special kinship with the very small black community of Madison in the 1950’s. Many of the families had been in the community for generations; one or two were descended from slaves. (In fact, one of the early members was Eston Jefferson, the son of Sally Hemings and, yes, Thomas Jefferson). The black community wasn’t large, but it was, Jack felt, very solid.

Jack seemed to know everybody, and so there were names that floated around, in my childhood. One of them was Odie Taliaferro (officially Odell Taliaferro) but who was he, and what had he done?

After Jack died, I got the story: the Taliaferros took advantage of the new open housing law, and moved to an all-white neighborhood. They woke up to a cross burning on the lawn one night.

It was the kind of thing that drove my father nuts, so he did what he always did: wrote a story. And that meant he went and talked to the neighbors. Ostensibly it was for the story, but really it was to say, very slowly, with his eyes boring into the interviewees:

“Someone burned a cross on their lawn, but I know it couldn’t be you, because you’re good people, and they’re good people, too. Aren’t they!”

When Jack got into this mode, neither family nor neighbors could resist him. The neighbors learned to live with Taliaferro, and Odie never forgot it.

The open housing law, in fact, was something else that Jack and the State Journal had championed. I knew that, and I think I remember that Jack—rather smugly—claimed that the more liberal Capital Times had been against it. (The rivalry between the State Journal and the Cap Times—run by ‘that damn Bill Evjue’—spilled frequently into animosity…)

So it was another battle: this one more successful than Weatherly. What I didn’t know—until the Historic Madison Facebook page published a letter my father wrote in 1991—was that the battle had been fought with his usual buddies. Those were Henry Reynolds (who was the mayor) and Oscar Rennebohm (who owned enough pharmacies in town that the statue of Miss Forward, atop the capitol, was really reputed to be Lady Rennebohm, pointing to the site of the latest drugstore).



So I knew the story—sort of—of the open housing ordinance. But I didn’t know the story of Calvin Harris, or his mother, Willie Lou. And then, in an odd twist of fate, I did.

My old man—he’s supposed to be dead, you know. But he crops up, usually in photos posted in Historic Madison. And sometimes, I get a little more of the story. More often than not, I get a lingering scent from the past. And questions. That aerial photo he took of Edgewood College—was that the one he never got paid for? It was in the late 40’s or early 50’s: he had a young family and no money. So he took the photos, and found himself handing them to Sister So-and-So, the president of the college. So he was bracing himself to ask for five bucks, when she said…

“…God will reward you, my son.”

Ah, they knew how to do it in those days!

And what, by the way, was my father doing up in Mauston, or wherever it was? Because I stumbled on the photo on the Wisconsin Historical Society website while looking up Mary Ann van Hoof, to whom the virgin appeared several times in Necedah, Wisconsin. The story went national, and I peered at the pictures of the farmhouse and the subsequent shrine: had Jack taken those? No way to tell, but who knew that that neck of the woods had had a long association with spiritualism and mediums? And suddenly, there was my father’s photo in the Historical Society’s webpage: the only description was “two women testing the medium,” or something of the sort. The “testing” involved a good bit of rope, which gives the whole thing an edgy feel….



Well, I’ll never know what test those women were doing—nor will anyone, I suspect.

“You’re dead,” I tell Jack on occasion, when he pops up without warning and without explanations One of the photos in the Historical Society is of an old man knitting; the photo was taken in the early 50’s, and the man must have been 80 if not 90. So who was he, and why was he knitting, and what was his wife doing? Smoking cigars? Testing mediums?

Could it be that the old man was more unconventional than his sons? After all, I call my brother John, who is a lawyer in New York City, and who, like me, neither knits nor tests mediums. He remembers the name of Weatherly, the police chief, and then brings up…

“Remember Jack his dancing girls?”

Anna Nassif,” I told my brother. Nassif was professor of modern dance at the UW, and Jack liked to photograph her work. What was the fascination? Perhaps it was the positions that a dancer could assume, or the angles, or the play of bodies against nature. That may have been it, since my mother would tell us, “your father’s not here; he’s off with his dancing girls on the rocks.”

It was accepted: my father had his dancing girls on the rocks, and left us all bereft on various Saturday mornings. The fact that neither Jack no Nassif—both unconventional but completely proper—would ever venture off the rocks and into the bushes made the whole thing sillier.

So we laugh about Nassif and the dancing girls, and John wonders: why am I thinking of Jack? I tell him about Historic  Madison, and Facebook, and then about the YouTube videos I’m seeing of Renée Fleming and other opera divas. The man who interviews the singers always asks at the beginning: who took you to your first opera?

And so I asked myself—who had taken me to my first opera?

The opera was Carmen, it was in the auditorium of East High School, and I must have been ten or eleven. I had just started playing the cello, and somebody must have told my father to take me to the opera. So there he was, and there I was. Where was my mother? Was she sick, or was this a father / son thing?

We never know, when we do things with the young, what we’re sowing, if anything at all. And the seed was dormant for many, many years, though I would become a classical musician, among other things. But opera? It was never a passion, until I heard a voice on the radio, a decade or two later. It was an ad for an appearance of a very young Jessye Norman; in the background, you could hear her singing somewhere in the middle register. Suddenly, extraordinarily, her voice opened up and stilled to the most unimaginable sound I had ever heard. It was a glorious, pianissimo high note. It came out of nowhere and lasted until all time. I knew I had to hear that woman, as I have heard so many other women—and men—before her and after her.

“Who took you to the opera,” asked the interviewer.

“You did, Jack,” I tell my father. He looks up, nods, and then goes back to being dead. Until he turns up again, on Facebook or the Historical Society, or in stories. I’d forgotten, until my brother reminded me, about the police chief and the dancing ladies on the rocks. And I’d almost forgotten about that first opera, in the high school auditorium. We were both a little unsure about what we were doing there.

“Sorry,” I tell my father, disturbing his peace once again.

“I never said thank you,” I tell him.

But I also never forgot.