Breakfasts of Champions

(The Global Origins of Daily First Meals)

It was the Tudors who first invented the concept of breakfast as we know it, despite the fact that they routinely skipped it. The word literally means the “break of fasting” from the previous night, but this first meal of the day is distinctly different in every culture and country.

Pancakes are the true fossils of breakfast foods; they’ve been around since prehistoric times. Nuclear Imaging has shown that the world’s oldest mummy – Otzi the Iceman – had just finished off a stack of bran meal flattened into a pancake before he died. His name was a nod to the Otzal Alps (a region bordering Austria and Italy), where his skeleton was discovered in 1991. The first-ever, freeze-dried human specimen, Otzi had been well preserved by the ice pocket he fell into 5,300 years ago. He spent more than fifty centuries entombed in ice and when found; his brain, eyeballs, even his penis and internal organs were intact (hence the ability to study what his last meal had been).

In Ancient Egypt, both the peasants and their strict Pharaoh commanders filled up on bread, beer and onions before hitting the fields. Leeks, beans and fruit were often added to this morning diet. Few wells existed, and no one wanted to drink directly from the Nile, so flasks of barley-based beer were an essential. I can only hope the workers were spaced far and well apart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be around the after-effects of such a gastric combo!

In the Middle Ages, Europeans had just two formal mealtimes: one midday and one in the evening. (Those Tudors took their time getting breakfasts added to the roster.) Soldiers in Rome woke up to thick, steaming porridge, made of polenta, spelt or barley. In Asia, the rice porridge called Congee from the Zhou Dynasty (around 1000BC), is still a staple of their diet, whereas the American South boasts porridge made from maize, aka Grits. Longtime pig and chicken farmers of England started their days with what was readily at hand: bacon, sausage and eggs.

Unusual sweet breads and moist baked goods share a long history of preference as morning snacks. Croissants weren’t created until 1683 and not in France, but by a baker in Vienna, Austria. The German for cake is muffe, but the first time a muffins recipe was ever mentioned in print appeared in England in 1703, and the spelling read as “moofins”. A Colonial version called Mush Muffins (aka “Slipperdowns”), came from New England and were made with hominy; while the origins of its crustier cousin – the English Muffin – dates back to Wales in the 10th or 11th century.

Eating at dawn in the sixteenth century became a vital habit for those newly and regularly employed other than on their own farms and homesteads. Laborers soon found that long workdays without sustenance could be substantiated by having big meals at home early in the morning.

Early Colonists favored pancakes, but they were dry, unsweetened specimens. It was ages before sweet toppings evolved. Surprisingly, the indigenous people of North America were responsible for producing the now classic batter mates of maple syrup and maple sugar; Native Americans had been tapping trees long before any settlers arrived.

It was the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century that regularized working times and made it essential for both laborers and bosses to gorge on breakfasts before reporting for a day of long, unfed hours. The British had oatcakes (a biscuit-like bread), homemade jams, cheeses and crusty bread. Sometimes leftover meat pies were toted to fuel their days. Pies were such a popular commodity, there were always small stands selling them outside of factories.

Orphans, the destitute and factory workers often existed on a thin porridge called Gruel: basically oatmeal boiled in water and milk. More priviliged folk enjoyed Yorkshire Parkin – a sweet and sticky gingerbread made from black treacle (molasses), margarine, powdered ginger and its cherished grace – a dose of brandy.

In 1878, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (who presided over a sanitarium), invented both Granola and then Cornflakes as part of his Puritan diet intended to suppress sexual desires and steer Americans away from sin. Fat chance. But it did intoduce two elements of food that have become modern staples of the American breakfast diet: granola and boxed cereal.

Growing up, family meals in my house were sparse and sporadic; formal gatherings evolved only during holidays or in the presence of company. We all kept different schedules and were expected to fend for ourselves, certainly in terms of breakfast and lunch. I grew up thinking all my peers had similar lifestyles and ate carrots and bananas to kickstart their days.

Even now, I still tend to skip breakfasts, although coffee is an essential launch to my mornings. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in Britian that tea lost its title as “most preferred beverage” to java. Before coffee, many people started their days with alcohol. For ancient Egyptians, beer and bread was the morning meal, while Romans and Ancient Greeks preferred wine.

Coffee is said to have had its origins in Ethiopia, when a goat herder named Kaldi found his flock cavorting energetically after grazing on the red fruit of coffee plants. The goats were so gleefully rambunctious and fired up, they even refused to sleep at night. The flockmaster had his brainstorm: “If it’s good for goats…”!

For those whose workdays were interminably long and arduous, coffee quickly became a vital drug to combat fatigue and has certainly remained so. But the concept of breakfast serves the same impetus and energy boost: igniting one’s metabolism, helping burn calories and balancing blood sugar levels.

However or wherever we reside, revitalizing one’s self at the start of a new day is quite the nutritional sunrise.

However or wherever we reside, revitalizing one’s self at the start of a new day is quite the nutritional sunrise.

Le Clown Bar

(This is an article I was asked to write for a blogsite years ago, when the Clown Bar was still owned by Joe Vitte. He has since sold it, but it has been shuttered during the Pandemic and rumored to have become an upscale restaurant with no appreciative love of either clown or circus).

If, after leaving Cirque d’hiver, one turns right onto Rue Amelot and walks two elephant lengths, there appears a rather plain portal to one of Paris’s best kept secrets: “Le Clown Bar”. To step through these doors is to find one’s self in an unheralded palace: the world’s smallest Musee de Clown.

Behind the long, curved wooden bar, the walls gleam with hand painted enamel tiles of Augustes and White Face clowns caught in classic reprises. The very same motifs are repeated on the plates on which meals are served; wine glasses are etched with acrobatic figures, too. Look up: a large circular painting of clowns looms from the heart of the otherwise Art Deco, Fleur-de-Lis ceiling. There is nowhere the eye can roam without resting on photos, sculptures, drawings, prints, canvases, vintage posters or knick-knacks depicting world-class buffoons. Most of them are portraits, recognizable and legendary, of those who have frequented the bar throughout the past century.

Le Clown Bar is registered as having opened in 1902, the creation of one Jean-Baptiste Menery, who conceived the original imagery woven into the walls and ceilings. Joe Vitte, the current proprietor, is the fifth owner and with his wife, daughter and sister, have run it for more than twenty years. From its earliest days, this charismatic cafe has served as a meeting hall for circus personages from around the world. It once even served as home for the three clowns whose black and white photos hang near the windows; that trio lived upstairs.

In the early 1990’s, when I first came to attend the much regaled “Festival Mondial du Cirque de Demain” at Cirque d’hover, I was not aware of this little phenomenon set in its shadow. Caroline Simonds, longtime friend and once-partner, had already founded her stellar company “Le Rire Medicine”, which placed clowns in hospitals throughout Paris. Her repeated descriptions of the Festival and the creative luminaries who attended, got my envy bone jiggling. I was also longing for new inspiration for my paintings. Having told other circus friends around the globe I would finally be going to Mondial, the universal response was, where can we meet?

So I posed the question to Caroline. “That’s easy”, she responded. “Le Clown Bar”.

It is one thing to enter Cirque d’hover, a permanent circus building in France, reputedly built for Napoleon. It is a perfectly round structure with glass display cases built into the curved lobby walls that hold old programs, artifacts, props and photos of the Bouglione Family, who presently own and maintain it. But the first time one enters into the inner halls is not just enchanting; it takes the breath away.

The deep red velvet drapes of its ringside tiers, the steeply raked seats that hurtle down to its carpeted ring, with white stairs rising above the facade to a balcony where the orchestra holds court…you can feel the weight of time and sense the unearthly descendants who have spun and tumbled here. It is only fitting that these two aesthetically magical places: Cirque d’hiver and Le Clown Bar, neighbor one another.

Having picked up my tickets a bit after five that first night (the show was scheduled for nine P.M.), I strolled down Amelot, arriving just as the cafe’s metal doors rolled up on their tracks and once again stood transfixed at a remarkable inner world. Tall, leather-seated stools lined the long bar, and a bustle of closely set tables filled the front and back areas. There were shelves and glass-fronted armoires full of clown souvenirs, figurines, pottery, toys, novelties and signs. Perhaps because of the coppery ceiling, the room seemed to glow with sun-blessed lighting, soft and intimate.

As I stepped inside, Joe met me and announced they weren’t quite open. I nodded and asked if I could just sit and look. I think my obvious wide-eyed fascination amused him. At the same time, his strongly featured face intrigued me. I inquired if I could reserve a table, as I had friends coming to join me after six or so. He told me no. They NEVER took reservations. Then pointed me to a small table across from the bar. He returned to setting up, and I immediately pulled out my sketchbook and drew him at work.

I needed a good warmup for the drawings I would rattle off at the Festival later. And my favorite way to sketch is innocuously blending in with domestic activities. I made studies of several objects in view, then of the waiter and a young woman who had appeared. At one point, the woman approached and placed a glass of wine on my table. I tried to explain that I hadn’t ordered one. She pointed to the pages beneath my hand, smiled and walked away.

The first of my friends who showed up that night were Brazilian acrobats; we ate dinner and plowed through two bottles of wine. By then, I was joking with the waiters and woman who had served me. At a quarter of nine, I asked for the bill and left as tip, a generous amount of francs, plus most of the portraits I had made.

It was amazing to see, over the course of those four hours, how the bar had filled to capacity. When I left, there were people still waiting outside in long trails down Amelot. Circus performers, circus directors, booking agents, the ring crew, television crews, animal trainers, journalists… Of course, the fuller it got, the less people took any notice of the stunning archives of art all around.

Directly after the show, I returned to the Clown Bar and stayed until closing, sharing with Joe and his daughter, Myriam (the kind woman who had served me), my sketches from the show. I was maybe slightly drunk on wine, but more so from the imagery that had bombarded me that night.

The following evening, when I returned at 5:30, the doors of Le Clown Bar were already open. A lone and formal “RESERVED” sign graced the table where I had sat the night before. I noted it, puzzled, and slid into a nearby seat instead. Within seconds, Myriam appeared, scowling.

“Whaaaaat?” I asked. (I’d been trying to teach her Brooklyn’s the night before).

“Eet eese for YOU”, she scolded, pointing to the sign.

Thereafter, every night when I stepped into Le Clown Bar – no matter how crowded and thick with patrons – that table sat untouched with its small “RESERVED” sign. Once I entered and sat, the sign was whisked away and a bottle of the house Gamay placed in front of me. I dined there every night, always joined by a myriad of friends from other countries.

So began my longtime friendship with the Vitte and Dub family, which has continued to this day. Le Clown Bar became my studio away from home, where I warmed up my quick-sketch hands each night before friends appeared to dine and drink with me before the show. Years later, when Myriam took up my offer to visit New York and came to stay with me on the Bowery, she called my loft Le Clown Bar II, marveling at my own treasure trove of clown and circus paraphernalia.

For over two decades, we embraced each other’s company. I brought them small paintings, NYC souvenirs and treasures from my personal memorabilia. They gifted me with etched wine glasses and a set of their serving plates: vintage clowns in acrobatic feats. Stepping into the bar each year to that “reserved” sign in place and their beaming faces was as moving to me as the acts and artistry I was witness to each night.

The Festival Mondial, originally founded by Dominic Macular, has changed hands over the past decade and no longer resides at Cirque d’hiver. Pascale Jacobs, a noted historian, publisher and costume designer, whose clients include major shows, runs the Festival out of his own 5,000-seat tent – Cirque Phenix – in a park quite a distance away.

The Bouglione Family keep a constant roster of prestigious programs running at Cirque d’hover, hosting most of the professional circuses that come to France. The Feature film, “The Devil Wore Prada” shot many of its ending scenes inside the building. But the absence of the Festival Mondial has had a big impact on Le Clown Bar’s business, not to mention the generally poor economic climate that has prevailed. Joe had depended on her support and management skills since she was a young teen, but eventually Myriam left Paris to start a family. During Festival week, the bar still draws late night contingents of performers, directors and executives from famed circuses – from Roncali and Knie to Ringling and Cirque du Soleil. They find their way back to Le Clown bar after the Phenix shows finish each night.

But Joe still fears for the future. He is hoping that the city will make good on its recent promise to give the bar landmark or museum status to preserve its unique history and artistry. Its reputation stands, not only as an unusual and brilliant homage to the world of clowns; the restaurant is very well regarded for its native cuisine and traditional French dishes. Both the food and wine menus, under Joe’s direction, have earned him a strong neighborhood clientele and followers outside the entertainment world.

Circus buffs or not, anyone who ventures to Paris and wishes to step into an enchanting old style cafe, to sip an excellent glass of wine or nurse a rich expresso while musing over wonderful art, should make Le Clown Bar a starred destination.

Ten years ago, I would have suggested you ask for Joe and tell him, “Karen from the Bowery” sent you, but he and his family relinquished ownership and moved away. And I have not returned since then.

Under the Influence

It’s safe to say that we’ve all influenced at least one person and been influenced by many. Our fashionable souls always wish to be thought well of, at the least, exempt from social scorn and public rankings.

Throughout high school, I wore loose-fitting railroad overalls and walked the two miles from my house everyday to avoid the dreaded bus ride. Mainly, being mocked and ridiculed by high school “influencers”: those snarky girls wearing mini dresses and more pancake than Trump, who commandeered the back of the bus in order to view and criticize every student climbing onboard. Hard to be influenced by people we don’t even want to associate with, but they had their devout followers; namely the football team, the lusting musical coach and a perverted principal.

Even back then, what influenced me was of an aesthetic or more humane nature: discovering new mediums, the kindness and generosity of my art teachers, and the books I devoured on American master makers (Calder, Rockwell, Hopper, O’Keefe, Rothko). CD’s, computers and cable had yet to be invented; TV’s possessed only a handful of channels, so live and literary impressions were key.

I remember JFK’s assassination and the resounding response around the world. His death was a revelation: witnessing how a public figure could have such a personal impact on so many people. A more entertaining revelation was the arrival in NYC of a mop-headed quartet called The Beatles, who gave me cause to appreciate the power that words and harmonized voices in music could have.

Living on the Bowery, I liked to stop at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Cafe. It was nearby on Houston St., and sometimes I’d find Joni Mitchell sitting at a back table. Too enamored of her to approach or speak, I’d just watch her sip coffee and write. She was the first and remains one of the strongest influences on my own poetry.

I somehow missed the birth of electronics and subsequent blizzard of technological inventions while crisscrossing the country with circuses and shows. By the late 80’s, it was standard and customary to own cell phones and computers in homes and businesses. My first phone – after the bombing of the WTC in 1993 – was an archaic Nokia, just one step up from a walkie-talkie.

I still consider myself on the side-of-the-dirt-road of rapid fire communication devices and platforms. Other than Facebook, I remain wary of current trends, the increasing warp-speed titans of media: Instagram, Tiktok, Reddit, Tweets, Twitter, Snapchat, We Chat, Tumbler, Pinterest, LinkedIn, VK, Spaces… I can’t even name the rest. Forty five percent of the world population uses social media, and it is now the new measure of success; simply how many followers one has. Sadly, for literary ventures, it is almost impossible to procure an agent or publisher without possessing a massive database of readers who follow you. Numbers rule; a hardy human count for commerce’s sake.

This evolution of modern times has created its own newfound caste, “Influencers”, a breed of the wealthy and famed who utilize electronic prowess and high velocity visibility. With access to an endless global audience, these are individuals with upwards of multi-million ardent followers.

Granted, there are the gifted celebrities: singer/musicians, actors and sports heroes with track records of proven artistry. DeCaprio, Bieber, Swift, Grande, Gomez, Eilish, Perry, Beyonce, Ronaldo … all command a high volume of devout fans and hardly have to flex their powers of persuasion to affect an immense populace.

But more and more, there appears a force of “Fashionistas at the Front” – learned in promotion and peddling their best product: themselves. They all have distinct niches of authority and expertise that resonates with their devoted clientelle. But more importantly, they possess swag and hold major sway: the ability to impact purchasing decisions. As mega-marketers, they attract brand names and corporate ventures looking to collaborate and expand their own marketing objectives.

We know that vanity sells. Karl Langerfeld called it “The healthiest thing in life”. Diana Vreeland decreed: “I loathe narcissism, but I approve of vanity”. By virtue of that measure and her oversized confidence, Miss Piggy was a great early incluencer.

Fashion has always begat ardent fans, those hunting updated methods or shortcuts to beautification and style. There’s a longtime, clear-cut fever of consumption promoting appearances. British philosopher Benjamin Whichcote, who argued in his day (the 1600’s) for religious tolerance, said, “None are so empty as those who are full of themselves”. More currently, the singer George Michael declared, “The whole business is built on ego, vanity, self-satisfaction, and it’s total crap to pretend it’s not”.

But vanity is not the leading virtue of the drive behind social media: communication is – the instant gratification of being heard and seen. Flooded by graphics and audio, film footage and podcasts, people get to connect with strangers and folks they would normally not meet. The feedback and positive enforcement is stimulating; why economist Paul Zak dubbed Oxytocin (a chemical the brain releases when a person feels accepted and part of something), “The Trust Hormone”. Electronic influence is about esteem and approval, a bonding outside one’s family. On social media, we all become eager as dogs to have someone paying attention to us.

An allegiance and dependency on our screens (whatever the size or form), has almost become a religion for some, magnified in 2020 by the isolating parameters that Covid established. We were all left immobile. Prevented from traveling other than virtually, unable to see our loved ones, to convene business and professional work, offices and public buildings banned. Electronic communication became a consolation and salvation; we could see and speak to the world when one could not even leave their homes.

Online shopping grew 44% in 2020, with Amazon accounting for half that figure. The first ever documented online purchase was only 25 years ago, in 1994. Today, one quarter of the 7.8 billion people in the world are online shoppers. That explains a lot of “influencing”, at least in the commercial realm.

I don’t own a Kindle, not do I like audiobooks. I still love the touch and feel of turning book pages, of holding a hardbound in my hands and retreating to a corner to read. This form of intimacy amplifies the digestion. Book reading is easier on the eyes and easier to skim than any e-versions. I am a bit snobbish in that I never trust a home where books are not evident: shelves or piles of novels and factual writings, well-worn and diverse in topic.

Our parents and inner family are out first sources of influence. From there, what and how we filter information we receive is tantamount to advancing and developing. We learn from multiple sources and places, even from strangers. Common sense still dictates some of our choices, as does self-preservation and affiliate defenses–to provide for and protect family and friends. The pursuit of dollar signs, of objects hailed by celebrity consumers doubling as marketing activists, seems to misplace crucial elements by which we pledge allegiance.

It is easy to find lessons in everyday occurrances and interactions, but as the Dalai Lama notes, “Real power has to do with one’s ability to influence the hearts and minds of others”.

OATHS, OAFS & GALLOWS

I have been riveted, as I imagine most of the nation is, by the Impeachment Trial proceedings that have been live streamed everyday. Wednesday, January 6th was hellish, but the following 24 hours became a Blursday as the world tried to comprehend the violations, assault and terror that reigned at the bequest of Trump.

The gravity of the Ex-President’s conduct (and there is some solace in being able to say, “the EX-President”), could not have been painted in flatter or more simpler tones had Alex Katz wielded the brush. CSI couldn’t have documented clearer, more damning or more overwhelming evidence of what the Ex-President’s lies and propaganda wrought.

It was not the equivalent of “herding cats”. His was a serious call to arms. Playing a veritable Wicked Witch of the West, he directed his screeching forces of flying monkeys to attack. And attack they did. Feral Trumpeters, armed with steel bats and knuckles, tasers, guns, knives, zip ties and rope (for a hastily erected gallows noose reserved for Pence), marched in revved up masses to the Capitol, where they obliterated windows, doors and defending police or guards who stood in their way.

Globally, every major network is covering the trial live. Except Fox News, of course, who pulled the plug the second day in the middle of a House Manager’s testimony. Eric Swalwell, who chairs the Intelligence Modernization Subcommittee, was laying out compelling facts pointing to Trump’s complicity and austere control of the riot when Fox’s Tucker Carlson, like an embittered child who sticks his fingers in his ears and chants, “nah nah na nah”, chose to cut the broadcast off.

It is a sequestered mocking of the proceedings that fools no one. Fox has long been established as beholden and wed to Trump; it’s the main news network all his diehard supporters watch. The conspiracy theories, persistance of election fraud and unwarranted criticisms of the Democratic party have been fanatically propogated by the station’s coverage and devout allegiance to the Ex-President and Republican party. They would not want to bear witness to any averse information or reporting that opposed their views.

One of the most frightening scenes I’ve even seen in a movie occurs near the end of “Rosemary’s Baby”. Mia Farrow’s character, pregnant and having realized that there is a conspiracy of neighbors out to get her, runs into her apartment and locks the door. leaning on it, out of breath, sure she is safe; we see down the long hall behind her, all the people she is fleeing, silently tiptoeing in. It is a chilling moment that gave me nighmares for weeks. The idea of believing you are home, safe and protected. Completely unprepared or aware of an impending and threatening invasion.

Watching actual footage from the Capitol’s assault and rape, was no less terrifying. The empowered self-righteous crowd running like wild dogs after prey. The cat-and-mouse game of senators fleeing down corridors, only to pivot at the warning of a guard and charge back the opposite direction again.

The House Managers used red dots on projected diagrams to show where the throngs of attackers were, their paths and how close to the delegates and aides they came. I was a first-hand witness to the aftermath of 9/11, but unprepared for the trauma of this event. The havoc, abject fear, substained injuries and deaths that were intentionally triggered by the Ex-President, who watched the live actions from the sanctity of the White House, reportedly with glee. And chose not to intervene, to halt the destruction or aid those terrorized. Even after the impassioned pleas from Capitol police, struggling to contain the riot and protect the congressmen and women inside.

There is no misinterpreting the breach of his Oath of Office; his arrogant refusal to call off his “cavalry”, to put an end to the violence and destruction. It was Vice-President Pence who, ultimately, gave the orders to call in the National Guard that only then began restoring order. Pence’s noble demeanor and actions since the election results (refusing to accept Trump’s ludicrous and illegal demands), made him far more Presidential in behavior and bearing than his “boss”.

In his signature vindictive manner, D.T. then orchestrated the mob’s cries for Pence’s head. Recordings of the Tweets he sent and corresponding bellows from the crowds were part of the audio evidence presented. Had they found him, the falsely-enraged activists would have hung him from the gallows on the front lawn.

In his summary today, Lead House Manager, Rep. Jamie Rasking, quietly asked, “What is impeachable conduct, if not this?”

I concur.

My Learned Beasts

(Author’s note: this is an older essay I wanted to include here. Neither Smudge nor Columbus are alive anymore, and eight years ago, I traded in my longtime loft on the Bowery–where this was written–for an old Victorian house in Orange County, New York).

My animals are getting a terrific education. I feed them all the fascinating biscuits of information I’ve learned and assimilated over five decades. Wholesome, statistically-weighted facts like: 18.5% of Americans get cremated, as opposed to 97% of the Japanese. Like, Finland has the second highest suicide rate in the world and their national dance is the Tango. I don’t know why they kill themselves over there, especially since the U.N. has twice now declared them the “happiest nation in the world”. It’s an interesting conundrum, thought I have to define that word when Smudge and Columbus tilt their heads in mutual puzzlement.

More than forty one million Americans own dogs, and more than twenty eight and a half million buy their dogs holiday gifts. Of course, I wait until my cat leaves the room to mention this statistic to Columbus, my border collie. The record of gifts for felines hasn’t been established yet, and Smudge will only get a hairball from the stress.

“Did you know…” (how I often start my dissertations to them), “That in 1846, there were ten thousand Jews living quietly here in New York?” (Although the thought of that many Jews living quietly is almost an oxymoron.) “But because they kept such low profiles, anti-semitism was almost nonexistent”.

Smudge is immediately disinterested. Neither people nor historical facts are his taste. “Did you know that Rome has the largest population of stray cats?” I add quickly. He looks back at me, cautiously. “They do: they have the run of the city, are protected under local laws and are fed by all the locals. And we’re talking more than 300,000 kitties”. Columbus groans, the idea of such a large feline community likely depresses him.

I realize it is not a helpful bit of news for Columbus’s sake. Already fully-entitled and vain, the statement seems to assure Smudge of global feline superiority. He jumps on the couch where Columbus has been and wheedles his way against his spine, until the dog is forced to leave.

I think of all animals as savants, possessing instincts and sensitivities beyond human ability. She is one of the most brilliant animal scientists of all times, but I don’t agree with Temple Grandin’s belief that one has to get away from words to understand an animal. I have always used language and speech as a connective device to the pets I have had; it is a particularly useful tool when working professionally with dogs. Their hearing is acute and their willingness to understand, immense.

My previous dog, a labrador retriever named Little Face, was nicknamed”Professor” by my circus teachers. Face possessed a human-like vocabulary, which I attributed to the fact that I spoke to him incessantly since he was three months old. Conversationally, I’d say things to him, but he quite understood key words. If I asked him to get something specific from the other room, he would accurately retrieve an object, even if it was something left randomly out of sight. When friends phoned, I would tell him afterwards who it was. For someone he was fond of, his reaction was immediate and graphic: anywhere from a tail wag to a bark. And I’m not alone in terms of the faith bestowed in how my dog thinks.

To create his famous work, The Ride of the Valkyries, the composer Richard Wagner sat his beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Peps, on a chair and performed sections of the work for him. Depending on the dog’s reactions, Wagner either kept or eliminated those passages.

A grey tabby cat named Nora, short for Leonora Carrington (a surrealist from the thirties whom I admire), learned how to play piano when she was just a year old, by listening and watching her owner teach the instrument at home. There are other cats who lived in the house, but Nora was the only pianist among them. She responded to the lessons she overheard being given and took to the keys herself one day. Various recordings of her concerts exist.

“Did you know…” I pose to Columbus, “Dogs have the same brain structures that produces emotions in humans”? He blinks. “And a cat’s brain structure is about 90% similar to humans.” He looks away.

The kitchen is the only room where my belief that my animals love my speeches, wavers. There it is clear that the prospect of being fed or given snacks rules. Columbus chooses to communicate from the doorway with Smudge wedged beside him. He’ll lift his whole head to stare at the top of the refrigerator where I keep the treats, then lower his gaze to look directly at me again. This will be repeated several times until I ultimately comply. If I offer him a tidbit, to be democratic, I have to offer Smudge something, as well. What astounded me was, the first time Smudge ever appeared in the doorway on his own, looked up at the fridge, then right at me, three times in rapid succession. The parody and his new learned behavior earned him my praise and a snack.

Smudge came to me via a neighbor who’d rescued him from the upper West Side during a storm. Alex already had two adult cats who didn’t take well to Smudge’s invasion of their pre-claimed palace.

“He’s a shy thing, as you can imagine”, Alex told me, “and hasn’t much of a personality”.

Obviously, Smudge had a low opinion of Alex and his terrorist roomies. I’d brought my dog along to make sure that he was comfortable with this orphaned feline. Smudge strolled up and beeped Columbus once with his nose, then looked directly at me. “O.K.” I said. “I’ll take him.”

No sooner had I let Smudge out of the carrier into my studio, he began an earnest inspection of the entire loft. Returning, he sat down in front of me, wacked a shadowing Columbus on the nose and proceeded to groom himself. The attitude and message was clear: “Yeah, I’ll stay awhile, and I guess I’ll let you guys stay too”.

The cat with “no personality” was decidedly half Groucho Marx (cynically funny) half Fidel Castro (dangerous and charming). My vet judged his age to be under two years and declared he would always be small, probably due to the rough start he’d experienced out on the streets. One year later, when I returned, we had a huge argument.

“This CAN’T be the same cat you brought in.”

“Of course it is. It’s the ONLY cat I have.”

“No, it’s not. This is a different cat”.”

“I’m telling you, this is the same exact cat, it’s Smudge.”

“I remember that cat. It was a little skinny thing. There is no way this cat went from six pounds to sixteen pounds in a year.”

I don’t think she ever believed me, and I chose another vet after that.

Smudge was anything BUT shy. He ruled our household like a Viking, examining every visitor who came and deciding whether they were worthy of his further attentions. He bossed Columbus terribly; yet the two would sleep back-to-back on the couch or sit facing each other companionably.

“Would you believe?” I’d query him, “That you were once a teeny thing?” He glared at me and turned away. He was not, even weighing in at sixteen pounds, ever obese. I just think he’d been much younger than the vet decided and simply filled in and reached his potential once he had a real home. Not quite a tuxedo; he was mostly all white, with a black yarmulke capping his head, a large black oval on his back and a namesake swipe of black down his nose.

Growing up in a chaotic Jewish household, overlapping voices and loud conversations were commonplace. My mother had a green thumb and a penchant for exotic growths, including the scrawny marijuana sprigs my brother brought home from his first year at college. She tsk-tsk’d at their puny appearance, not recognizing what kind of plant they were. By the time Robert returned to school at the end of the summer, she had nurtured and transformed them into four foot-high bushes of showcase pot. My brother was thrilled. he supported himself that year from the sale of organic joints reaped from her tree.

The practical element I inherited from my mother was her habit of talking to all her plants, sometimes even singing in French (one of only two songs she knew). She spent her time praising or complimenting them as she watered and fertilized their soil. Everything she laid a hand on bloomed and rooted in profuse colors, health and radiance.

Our household rarely held less than four dogs and fourteen cats, and my mother memorized all the animals’ names before us kids. She’d run through the entire list of their monikers before coming to mine. I was used to being addressed as, “HEY…Jennifer, Josephine, Fifi, Figaro, Snowball…”

“Did you know,” I ask Columbus, “That we had a beagle named Bagel and a mutt named Love who my brother refused to call in late at night?” (He did, I had told him that story before.)

Both my fur boys love music. I play mostly classical at home. Smudge prefers Mozart to Shostakovich (too sharply dramatic), and Chopin puts Columbus to sleep. Sometimes, we sit on the couch–the three of us–listening to concertos together.

“Did you know,” I say nostalgically, “I used to perform with philharmonic orchestras across the United States?”

They glance at each other with what I recognize as their, “Go ahead and let her ramble on about what she’s done. It makes her calmer and then she’ll offer us a snack.”

Clever little beasts.

Truth and Reconciliation

I love the lethargy of dumb motor activities. There’s an almost zen like methodology to raking, sweeping or starting a painting. letting simple repetitive actions ease the mind away from its morbidities.

Last October, the leaves demonstrated like Portland protesters: appearing in small groups at first, then turning swiftly into large, loose clusters. Impressive swaths of marigold, crimson, hansa yellow and hookers green, vivid against the dying grass. Like urban riots, colored leaves clashed and sashayed, clamoring for attention. I gathered them in morning sun, lifting fat armfuls with bare hands, pushing them deep into durable sacks.

My four brimming bags resembled Army duffels. Leaning them companionably against each other, I went AWOL (inside), to paint. The Northern light in my studio was at its afternoon peak, and I’d had in mind while raking, an image from Hoeffner’s Farm two miles away. Their farmland spreads across both sides of the road, an immense acreage that’s always cleanly tilled. Flicking little leaf twigs out of my hair, I rinse clean my yogurt container and fill it with fresh water. Lay out a sheet of cold press.

Simple starts: wetting the page and making a pale wash of newly mowed fields; an ochre base in cylindrical lines that defines the concentrical ovals of land. When it dries, I work the umber in. This is how the layering begins, the trance of motion and sweep of brush. The way damp paper romances the paint, and the eye has to choose what to accentuate and what to leave alone. If the mind is at rest, it’s easier. Judgement is ocular, no mental scrutiny or fuss.

Perhaps that is why I paint. To be mindless, yet omniscient. Unlike the ex-President, who dispensed executive decisions brainlessly, with the sort of blind ruthlessness that belongs to barbarians.

After Nelson Mandela became President of a free South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was tasked with creating the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, to find more peaceful paths for the future and to begin healing the horrors of apartheid.

Twenty days into the New Year, and our nation has taken a collective sigh. Millions of shoulders and fists have released and lowered. Instead of the dread we faced every night for four years, we look ahead now to what good has come of each day. Biden and Harris, despite being disadvantaged by a lack of information and cooperation from T. and his Merry Republicans, have forged ahead with intelligence and political acumen. Thankfully, our new government is committed to truth and reconciliation.

Biden’s Top Ten List reads like a Humanity Wish List: rejoin the World Health Organization, stop the spread of Alaskan pipelines, postpone student loans, open Muslim borders, restrict travel to and from foreign countries, make masks mandatory on public transportation, halt the separation of immigrant families and welcome them to the country. Put Harriet Tubman on a twenty dollar bill. Introduce a trillion-dollar budget, in part to fund relief checks to every American. (It’s only a quarter of the first round’s amount, which Trump promptly used to fan out to his already-billionaire buddies and followers.) Biden also acted to ban the ban against transgender military troops and to oversee and increase the distribution of Covid vaccines and testing across the nation; something which the previous party decided to ignore.

Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama would chastise me for being so bitter. “Forgive and find joy”, they would preach in smiling unison.

I don’t venture out much these days; my painting desk serves as a meditation table for my “mindless” tasks. Small colorful canvases litter my room, like scattered leaves. Outside, naked trees and frozen earth. In the White House, the long-awaited thaw has finally begun.

Lions are Growing

After a year of holding our breaths and trying to dodge the invisible plague that violated our country as haphazardly and deadly as Trump’s missives and tweets, the curtains finally parted yesterday into light. Sweet light, with positivism and pledges to unify, a centering on humanity instead of malicious self-service. Immense relief felt that AT LAST, a man who speaks in complete sentences is in charge.

Christo couldn’t have designed an absent audience for the National Mall with more aesthetic aplomb: wheat fields of flags rippling and gesturing in a sea of stripes. And the vocal artistry was epic to current times: Lady Gaga’s emotional rendition of America followed by J-Lo, Garth Brooks and a poignant poetic reading by the young seer Amanda Gordon.

In the end, the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, as well as the Elections, trundled off, still muttering incoherently. No pomp and glory; he slunk away as a memory of bitter distaste and mass ridicule. In the radiant, artful, caring ceremonies that filled the morning, his name never emerged even once.

At least Pence had the good grace to attend and uphold the tradition of being escorted down the Capitol steps by the incoming Vice President, she who serves as a heroine in so many ways. There was no missing the honest camaraderie between the ex-Presidential figures and their families in attendance. Biden was a lion in their midst, a royal presence quietly observing. In his grand speech he reigned, stoic and reassuring. Embracing the nation, he renewed in us a breath of promise and hope, a sense of stepping beyond the broken body of what has been.

Trump was not only hobbled by his ego, but a steadfast refusal to acknowledge what scientists and medical experts declared in unison. His art of divisions left visible carnage, not just between race and gender but separating families, imprisoning children, praising the dark lords who worshipped him and sacrificing everyone else. His lack of work ethic and criminality was beyond inhumane, worse than a drug lord. While hundreds of thousands took their last Covid-wracked breaths, he paid homage to swiping turf at luxury golf clubs. Police departments–under his direction–brutalized unaramed protestors, his sanctioned militia ripped open the tendons of those they caught and zip tied. Blood from boxcutters and sneers in the dark while 45 was teeing off on private courses, having delegated international duties to his opportunistic son-in-law.

We had almost given up in despair admidst the pandemic of threats and tantrums from this President, while his First Lady proudly oversaw century-old rose gardens destroyed. The assaults of January 6th scarred and scared the populace, but finally ignited the fence-straddlers to drop and flee, snarling at all his shortcomings and long goings-on. Not only the Capitol was set ablaze, but the mindset of once-devoted followers. It was a pivotal move in the right direction.

Richard Brautigan could not have imagined how these words he penned would someday welcome a new political horizon :

“Lions are growing like yellow roses on the wind and we turn gracefully in the medieval garden of their roaring blossoms. Oh, I want to turn… Oh, I am turning. Oh, I have turned. Thank you”.

Rescues to Dream Of

I keep wanting our country to be rescued. Keep listening for that Hans Zimmer refrain of rousing music to signify the cavalry or a sudden dashing appearance as the Forces of Good appear on the horizon. I’m a dolt when it comes to Super Heroes; the current roster of animated and cinematic airborne wonders that my generation knows like the alphabet.

Everything I’ve learned as a child rebel, independent-thinking artist, maniacally-driven woman, tells me it is wrong to just sit and marvel at the crumbling of one’s society and culture. But what to do? Who to trust? Chadwick Boseman is gone, poor valiant warrior. Where is Joan of Arc, Wonder Woman, Maya Angelou…? Ruth Bader Ginsburg did her best but had limited time and had to fight with the other caped crusaders of her judicial clan.

At the very start of WWII, Denmark proudly proclaimed itself “neutral” and slapped their hands together, sure that was as good a done deal as one of Monty Hall’s Zonk prizes. Only six months later, Germany invaded and took over control of their country, thumbing their nose at Denmark’s King, Christian X.

The Nazis did permit many institutions to remain open and functioning. At the same time, the British managed to drop guns and ammunition from planes to help arm the Danes. But it wasn’t until the Reich pronounced their intentions to round up all Jews and demanded the death penalty for any resistance fighters or saboteurs, that Denmark made a stand.

King Christian X went into isolation, all the officials and secretaries quit en masse. The Germans could not fathom how to run the civil side of the country, so their response was to simply impose martial law. It was ordered that within two days, all Jews would be arrested and taken to extermination camps.

In a remarkable show of unified compassion during those 24 hours, resistance fighters and local fisherman made endless secretive trips by night using small boats and trawlers to rescue and relocate 7,220 Danish Jews. The King helped finance this massive mission of transporting 95% of Denmark’s Jews to unoccupied Sweden. (Admirably, Sweden received and sheltered a total of 16,000 refugees during the war). Simply glorious: the wonderfully orchestrated civil heroics that restored the Danish sense of independence and integrity and saved almost all of its Jewish populace.

We are aching for such a leader, for a caring, unified country to help salvage and restore our sense of humanity. Instead, a Mondrian-designed diagram of divisive rules abound; strict, bold black lines and boundaries set with disregard to human rights. The battlegrounds have been shaped and drawn–similarly to Hitler’s rule–between a democratic state and totalitarian system of command.

Equally terrifying is the fact that most lawlessness and criminal endeavors are the efforts of high ranking government officials, with more coverups in the White House itself than the Mafioso practice of encasing victims in concrete to enrich the bed of the Hudson River.

Americans have been rendered sitting ducks in a re-election game with a decidedly carny atmosphere. Mailing absentee ballots are as risky as throwing softballs into grids of toilet bowl rims, rigged to expel them again. Republican barkers insist that everything is safe, is secure, is going to make the world a better place. But the sightlines all around them depict a carousel of ghettos, infernos, tortured citizens and rank discrepancies of ethics.

The overriding fear of fixed elections, the likely clandestine involvement of Russian authorities (whose last endeavors four years ago proved so successful), is hard to contend with from a practical, emotional or defensive position. A huge outraged demographic is striving to counter the damaging potential disaster that looms. VOTE, we urge the public, despite the blatant fact that the means for voting are being sabotaged daily, mailboxes and sorting equipment dismantled and carted away.

When I was twelve, a tall and veritable tomboy, my eight year old brother would run back to our house pursued by hotheaded ten year olds (I never knew why they chased or were mad at him). I would simply take up the gauntlet of protection and roaring, run them off. Surprisingly, they always turned and fled in the face of my angry gestures and shouts. Sometimes, a few well-launched stones helped. Inside the house, when my mother was furious at Robert for something and chased him round the downstairs with a butcher’s knife, I would calmly hold the front door open for him to escape through, then close it quietly. She would skitter around the corner hollering and stop when she realized her target had disappeared. Glaring at me, the knife tightly clenched, she’d spit, “WHERE”? I’d shrug and retreat upstairs. I always waited until I heard her in the kitchen again, before tiptoeing down to let myself out too.

The forest surrounding our house was a definite lure, between the thick, mossy trunks of trees, vines and floral wonders that wound through its lace of fallen limbs. Like one of our fourteen cats, I hunted for small foraging creatures, if just to admire or sketch them. But the woods also proved a fine haven and escape from my mother’s tirades.

My brother has two grown sons now, with whom he’s forged an intimate, caring and close relationship that is the antithesis of what we grew up with at home. His wife, a linguist and teacher with a keen sense of humor, still shakes her head at the stories my sisters and I tell.

I have tried to combat the persisting frustration of events around me – through my art, in performing and by communing with nature. But the scourge of omnipresent politics and national bullying returns me to the state of a raging twelve-year old. I want to run the bad guys off with stones and fury. To open a door that will let the oppressed go free and contain those self-righteous evil ones. It’s a genie-in-the-lamp mentality, I know; a mental armor of farce and fantasy.

Charles Bukowski declared, “You begin saving the world by saving one man at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics”. He also noted, “The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that, in a democracy you vote first and take orders later. In a dictatorship, you don’t have to waste your time voting”.

Wanted: a soul tunnel in which to glide through good votes and good intentions. A path by which to offer the hurt and humiliated spiritual compensation and support, a means to move ahead. Oh, for a more humane government. Rather a leader with dementia than one who is clearly demented, better a military force that doesn’t train its sights and weapons on its own citizens. Let’s put an end to capricious, vindictive rulings that serve only an already privileged few and endanger or deny the needs and rights of the majority, the ones most suffering.

I’m reminded of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion: eyes closed, gripping his tail and bemoaning, “I DO believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I DO believe in ghosts…” We all have prayers and wishes, fervent and ineffectual as they are.

Fighting is a forever bad habit; people are stubborn that way. Differences in cultures, religions, appearances, fashions, passions and studies needn’t signify a green light to despise and ostracize others. It’s just easier to clash than seek or develop common grounds. Harmony seems to have become the rarest of commodities, unlikely to be achieved in any lifetime soon. And the escalation of all the prejudices, exploitation and possible outcomes is what is dreadful and frightening.

I had thought we were long past those Medieval accounts of barbarism and vicious punishments, dogmatic religions, of inflexible, unfair class systems that pitted an oppressed poor against the vanity of entitled wealth. As long as this is the perpetual fashion of societal behavior, war and mass deaths will be, too.

The American poet Eve Merriam expressed a hope we should all wish for. “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, “Mother, what was war”?