Rhys’ Tale

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I was teaching English at a little school in Saudi Arabia at the time, but had come to Berlin for a week in February to get my visa straightened out. It happened my second day there. I walked into a warm, dim-lit kneipe in Moabit, took a seat at the bar next to the gaming machine and ordered a beer.
“You Russian?” asks the guy sitting next to me. He’s about 50, lean and bald with mad eyes.
“No,” I say.
“Because you look Russian,” he goes on. “Where you from?”
“America.”
“South America?”
“No, Wisconsin.”
“That near Kentucky?”
“No,” I say.
My beer arrives. I pay. I can feel my neighbor’s eyes roving up and down my jacket and the side of my neck. He bursts out laughing, looks away. I take a sip of my beer. When I look at him again, his face is drawn. I notice the lead-colored bags under his eyes. He’s dead serious.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Rhys.”
“I’m Manfred,” he says, and starts speaking German.
Mein Deutsch ist schlecht,“ I say. “I don’t speak German.”
More laughter, more German.
“I said my German’s no good.”
He looks down into his beer for a moment, groping the handle. He looks back at me, tears now standing in his eyes.
I have this guilt!” he shouts.
“About what?”
“I DIDN’T DO IT!”
“What do you mean?”
“I said I didn’t do it! NO WAR! No war!”
“War?”
His forefinger plunges into my shoulder.
“You’re an asshole,” he says, and jabs me a few more times. “You know that?”
“Not really, no.”
“WHO ARE YOU!? he bawls.
“I already told you.”
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME!?”
“Lars.”
“Lars?”
“Yeah.”
“Bullshit. You American?”
“Yeah.”
He laughs hysterically, and then there’s a long pause. I can hear the pool balls knocking in the back of the kneipe, and the gaming machine is making noises.
“You know what?” he says. I feel his eyes again roving all over me.
“What?”
“I think you’re a great guy.”
“Thanks Manfred,” I say, and take a sip of my beer.
“HOW’D YOU KNOW MY NAME?”
“You told me. Remember?”
We look at each other. He screws up his eyes, starts speaking Russian.
“It’s my destiny,” he says.
“What is?” I ask.
“Moscow.”
“You ever been there?”
“Of course,” he says. “My father’s from there. My mother’s French.”
“Do you speak French too?”
He starts speaking what sounds like perfect French.
How many languages do you speak?”
“Try me,” he says.
“Chinese?”
(He speaks Chinese, or what sounds like it to my ears).
I lived in Beijing for a year,” he says, and picks up my lighter from the bar. He starts flicking it and the metal piece flies off, lands on the carpeting. He hands me a box of matches. I open it up, take a wooden match out, light it. We both gaze at the flame in awe, like I was Prometheus introducing fire for the first time to the human race.
Then we make eye contact, the flame hovering between our eyes.
“What’s your naaaame?” he says.
“My name,” I say, “is Fomich.” I move the flame far to the right. He follows it with those mad eyes. He’s absolutely riveted. I bring it back slowly, all the way past my eyes and to the far left, and then to the middle again. It sits dancing between us.
I blow it out, drain my beer, set the glass on the bar and the burnt matchstick in the ashtray.
“Foma Fomich,” I say. “That’s my name. And I come from Stepanchikovo. In Russia.”
And with that, I exit the kneipe and go out in the Berlin night.

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Art Class (Berlin)

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Last week, I paid €15 for 2 hours’ worth of art class, my first ever. The class was taught by an Englishwoman named A., and there were 7 students, including me, plus the model, an Italian (I think) in her late 20s. We started with a wash – i.e. brushing a base of watercolor paint onto a thick sheet of paper. I was kind of confused about how we were supposed to do it. I guess I was only half-paying attention when the instructions were being given, and I’d hardly ever used paints before, so naturally mine came out the worst of the batch. I wanted to do it over again, but before I could say anything, the model was standing nude in the center of the room. She did a little stretch and got on the floor, sitting there with one foot under her ass, the knee of her other leg pulled into her chest, and her arms akimbo, reaching up to the sky. We had 8 minutes to draw her in that position, but my hand was shaking so much I could barely draw a straight line. I wasn’t used to drawing under the gun, I always took my time. Plus, I was terrified that my sketch would be as bad as my wash, and they’d figure me out. The old nightmare. Something left over from childhood. Embarrassing scenes from the baseball diamond, the schoolyard, the backs of cars and bars and social gatherings raced through my consciousness. I began to sweat.

4 minutes to go, the teacher announced.

I now had the general shape of a woman on the page, but the lines betrayed my trembling pencil. I glanced at my neighbor’s rendering. Good. Hers was just as bad. Schadenfreude is good.

We ended up doing four sketches of the Italian woman in four different poses and showed our best one for a group critique. Mine was somewhere in the middle, I guess. At least it wasn’t humiliating, that’s all I cared about. But why? Why was I so mortified about being humiliated? Did I not apply to myself the very words I was always preaching in my writing – that all is dust and shadow, and it’s a mistake to make much more out of life than the effort it took to create it…

Our last assignment of the night was to paint the figure of the Italian woman over the wash we had done. I needed a beer for that. Rothaus Pils was available for €1.50 a bottle. The teacher brought one to me. The bottle was freezing cold. I tilted it back. Nothing came out.

“It’s frozen,” I told the teacher.

She apologized, took the bottle and tried to replace it but it was the last one left. She gave it back to me. I warmed it with my hands and held the bottle high over my mouth. A drop landed on my tongue. It was something.

I began painting. Traced the form, messed up with the black watercolor, tried to correct with white and with charcoal, but before I knew it, time was up. The class was over. The poor girl on my paper looked nothing like the nude in the center of the room. It was a child’s rendering, hollow, insipid. But I didn’t care anymore. It wasn’t me that was on trial anymore, it was the class. Was it worth it? The teacher was great, and very kind, but the form seemed antiquated. Are there not YouTube videos out there that are just as informative, and free? Someone told me about a guy who built his house from the ground up using nothing but YouTube tutorials. Why can’t the same be done with drawing and painting? It can. 90% of the game is the development of the craft, but I don’t think people go to art classes just for that. They do it for the social benefits too, which, I must confess, I don’t give a rattus norvegicus’ derriere about.

If I had to live my life over, I’d live over a saloon. ~ W.C. Fields

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My friend Horst was feeling ‘mopey’ yesterday because of his ex and didn’t seem to want to do anything, but I convinced him (in about 3 words) that the best cure for that was to go out drinking. We met at the bar I go to every Tuesday – Travolta – and I first saw him, I noticed the tension in his face. I told him he looked like he just drove over someone’s grandmother (and was stashing her in his trunk). But after a few beers and vodka shots, some jokes and conversation – Erica & our Liverpudlian friend R. were there too – the tension lifted, and we ended up staying out till 1:30 a.m. Not good for Erica who had to wake up at 6 this morning for work. I slept through the noise of her getting ready somehow and got out of bed a few hours later feeling like an old toad creeping from a damp hole. I couldn’t even finish my first cup of coffee, that’s how bad it was. But after a long shower (I stayed in till the hot water ran out), I had a couple soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast, paced the floors for a while and started feeling a rebound, a lifting & a resurrection. By noon I was like Jesus in Raphael’s Transfiguration (pictured above). You see, that’s the great thing about the bottle. You take the hit, lie down on the mat for a while, but always, always (come late morning or mid-afternoon), you peel yourself up, and with a fresh perspective, begin landing some blows.

Amsterdam, Van Gogh, Self-Doubt

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Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. ~ Van Gogh to his brother Theo

It had been 9 years since the last time I was in Amsterdam, but for the sake of the quote above, we’ll say it was 10.

10 years ago, in May of 2008, I was 36 years old, still living in Boynton Beach, Florida, still working full-time in my construction equipment rental business, I still hadn’t traveled out of the USA yet (and thought I never would), George W. Bush was still president, there was a hysteria that we were on the verge of a second Great Depression, social media was still in its infancy, George Carlin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Osama bin Laden, Robin Williams, my former mechanic Kevin Wagner and Laverne Clarence Gagne, a pro wrestling legend whose signature move was the belly-to-back suplex, were still walking the earth, and no one was saying anything about #metoo, or Fake News, or Brexit, or the Syrian Civil War, or Uday and Qusay Trump.

I shudder to think how much the world – and more specifically my world – will have changed ten years from now. But one thing that will be just the same are the works of Van Gogh. His paintings, especially the late ones – the ones he did in Arles and Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise – weren’t just paintings, his sunflowers weren’t just sunflowers, they were VISIONS.

I found myself thinking about Van Gogh a lot when I was in Amsterdam, and not just in the Van Gogh museum. His spirit was with me everywhere. I imagined him being my older brother in a past life; I imagined him at home battling with our father and against faith; witnessing his beginnings, the humble sketches, the grim paintings of peasants and miners, the letters coming in, his escape to Paris, his discovery of the impressionists and the wild explosion of color in his paintings thereafter; the Japanese influence, Absinthe in the bars, phantasms,  tremors, insanities, the beautiful works born in mental institutions, and the final undoing with a revolver in wheatfields he’d captured so magically in his paintings.

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Here’s a quote from Ronald de Leeuw, the editor of Van Gogh’s book of letters.

The linear development of his own life story through the halts, if not the stations of the cross, on his pilgrimage – Brabant, London, Paris, London, The Hague, Drenthe, Nuenen, Antwerp, Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy, Auvers – seems made for literature. The dramatic denouement in Arles and the associated mental crisis, so close on the heels of his artistic achievement, are as potent in their impact as the last act of a tragedy by Shakespeare.

I’ve said it many times before. Technically, Van Gogh was far from perfect. He could even be outright bad at times. But the irresistible charm of his simplicity, his naivety, his sincerity  (which he thought of as a duty); plus his profound expressiveness, the turbulence, the drama, his genius for color – I mean, for FEELING color – a talent of the soul and the gut that can’t be taught, rendered any shortcoming he may have had as completely irrelevant.

If Jesus were to come back as a painter, he’d be Van Gogh, I have no doubt about it. But I can’t talk about him too much here. Anything I say will be incomplete, and I had meant to talk about Amsterdam, which I will do before  wrapping up with one last thing about Van Gogh, the most important thing, the lesson amd moral that all struggling artists should take to heart.

As I was saying, the last time I had come to the city was 9 years ago, and for the first 2 days, I kept trying to find the area I’d stayed at, but with no luck. Everything looked the same – canals, restaurants, bars, cafes, tourist traps, tourists. The city was infested with American tourists, much more than you ever see in Germany, and some were quite old. I wondered if it was their first trip abroad. One thing I told myself long ago, in my 20s, was that I didn’t want to come to Europe for the first time when I was too old to appreciate it. When I was at the Rijksmuseum on my first day, there was an elderly couple standing in the ticket line in front of me, both bent and decrepit. The old man had a hearing aid, and his wife was doing the talking with the clerk. It didn’t go well. Much was misunderstood. Many things were repeated two and three times, and sometimes that wasn’t even enough. But they managed to get their tickets and make it into the museum which was huge and must’ve completely exhausted them. I know it did me, and I didn’t see half of what I wanted to. I saw everything I wanted to at the Van Gogh museum though, despite the insane mobs there. Every painting was THRONGED with people literally breathing down your neck, stepping on your feet, gaping, taking pictures with their iPhones, and I couldn’t help but think of how proud that genius old ginger-haired Christ-figure would’ve been if only he knew. I think in a way he did know – it was faintly anticipated. In a letter to his brother dated 3 April 1878, he wrote this, which explains how he went about his work for the rest of his life:

There was once a man who went to church and asked, ‘Can it be that my ardor has deceived me, that I have taken a wrong turning and managed things badly? Oh, if only I could be rid of this doubt and know for certain I shall come out victorious and succeed in the end.’ And then a voice answered him, ‘And if you were certain, what would you do then? Act now, as if you were certain and you will not be disappointed.’ Then the man went on his way, not unbelieving but believing, and returned to his work no longer doubting or wavering.

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This is Van Gogh’s painting Pieta, inspired by Eugene Delacroix, and below are his paints. Both were on display at the Van Gogh Museum.

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The Grote Kerk, Dordrecht

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Last Friday I went with Erica to Dordrecht, in the Western Netherlands, to watch her ring church bells at the Grote Kerk, the second oldest church in the city. The church was built between 1285 and 1470, and has been painted by Aelbert Cuyp, Salomon van Ruysdael, Gerrit Berckheyde and a few other masters of the Dutch Golden Age.

It was mid-afternoon when we got there, and there was already a group ringing bells in the bell house, a little building detached from the church. We went inside and looked around. I had heard there would be alcohol there, lots of it. That’s what I was looking most forward to. I had heard the weekend would be more about drinking than ringing bells, which was perfect for me because I didn’t know how to ring bells, nor did I plan on learning. We walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was stocked with Dutch cheeses and white wine and bottles and bottles of Belgian beer. We looked in the closet. There was more booze in there. More than our little group could ever finish in a weekend, but I must admit, some of the bell ringers – judging by their potbellies and scarlet red noses – looked like they could give it a good run. I don’t think any of them were religious, as you might suspect church bell ringers to be. I liked it that way.

When we were done perusing the kitchen, I threw my backpack on a table by the entrance and got my notebook and sketchbook out, along with The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, and Lolita. Erica was to be ringing for a few hours, and my plan, while she was doing that, was to walk around the city and maybe stop and read or do a sketch on a park bench somewhere. I piled everything together, and the dark-haired young woman behind me – a half-Austrian, half-Malaysian 23-year-old from Vienna – saw Lolita and started talking about how much she liked it. I had only read about 1/3, so I couldn’t say much, but we talked a little about the early parts, and then I found out she had already done her ringing for the day, and was also planning on checking out the city. I didn’t want to go with her, I wanted to go off on my own, so I didn’t say anything. I waited for her to go off and I went in the other direction.

Van Gogh lived in Dordrecht for a few months in 1877, and in his book of letters he writes about the ‘golden glow’ of the town and taking a lovely walk along the dyke past the mills. I had a little map of the city, and there was a picture on it of the Kyck over den Dyck (View of the Dyke), where the town’s last windmill was located. I headed off towards it, walking through a maze of streets brimming with curiosity shops, rustic little seafood restaurants and sidewalk cafes, taking a pitstop on a park bench here and there and reading or doing a sketch, and then rondellhunding the canals and onto the river quay, watching the boats and barges go by. The sky looked just like the Old Dutch Masters had painted it, patched with translucent blue, the lavender and lilac-gray clouds tumbling like cotton, billowing, exploding with pale-pink and saffron on the curled edges, reflected in the mystical glow of rippling water.

I never did make it to the dyke. I got close, but realized it was almost dinnertime. I was supposed to be back at the church by 6 p.m. I walked back thinking about the Dutch cheeses and all that free booze waiting for me in the kitchen.

I got there on time, but there had been a delay of some sort and Erica was still with a group in the bell house ringing. Fortunately, another smaller group was sitting outside in the shadow of the church drinking wine. One of them was the Viennese girl. I sat down next to her, poured myself a glass of wine, and noticed the sketchbook she was holding. As it turned out, in her peregrinations around the city, she had also been doing pencil drawings. She showed them to me. I showed her mine. She said mine were better, but I thought they were on about the same level. We had both drawn the Grote Kerk, but from different angles. I’d also done some head studies. What I needed more than anything was to take an art class or find a good teacher. I’d never had either. Some people wear being self-taught like a badge of honor, but in art it’s only a misfortune.

“A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters who will make something of him.” ~ Goethe

What Leonardo da Vinci said is also worth noting.

“If your son has not sense enough to bring out what he draws by bold shadowing, so that we can grasp it with our hands, he has no talent.”

And,

“If your son is perfect master of perspective and anatomy, send him to a good master.”

I don’t know how it happened. Early in the night, long before I started to feel the effects of the booze I had drunk, our Viennese friend was trashed, babbling away. She’d been talking to a wind turbine technician, a gray-haired, gray-bearded French-Canadian who’d been living in Norway for the past 22 years. He was almost 60, more than 30 years her senior, but she had read Lolita, and maybe that had something to do with it. They vanished from the bell house and went off into the Dordrecht night on his rental bicycle. It was a one-seater, I believe, so she must’ve been riding on the handlebars. They were trying to get to the hotel, but the hotel was a good three or four miles away, and they didn’t know exactly where it was. They realized it about 2 miles in and called a cab. The bicycle was then locked up on the side of the road, and they got in the cab and our Viennese friend proceeded to puke in the back seat of it. Police officers were then called, and apparently in the Netherlands if cops are called because someone is sick from alcohol they are obliged to take the person to the hospital, so that’s where our Viennese friend ended up, at least for a little while. We saw her at the hotel the next morning after breakfast. She was at the front desk with the wind turbine technician who was checking out. She saw us and looked away sheepishly without saying anything. Later, I asked Erica if she thought they went through with what they had planned before the night went – excuse the pun – tits up. She did. But when we saw the two next at the Grote Kerk, they were sitting apart and everyone pretended like they didn’t know anything. Then it was bell ringing time.

In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
       From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
               Bells, bells, bells—
  From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells. ~ Edgar Allen Poe

I went off again into the city, herumwarbling the canals and the streets, zigzagging the market with the fish stalls and the fruit sellers and the huge cheese wheels, strolling on the quay of the river and watching the motor boats and barges gliding under the Dutch skies. The weather was gorgeous. I did a few sketches of the sparse clouds and boats and headed to the museum. I never did make it to the dyke with the old windmill. I spent the afternoon looking at paintings, got drunk with the bell ringers that night, and the next morning Erica and I took the train to Amsterdam.

i saw it in a dream

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I wrote all morning today and after lunch rode my bike down Sonnenallee to a park near the Köllnische Heide S-Bahn station. There was a playground on one side of the park with screaming children so I went to the other side and sat in the shade two park benches down from one on which two middle-aged Spanish men sat talking to a third person via Skype.

I had come with my notebook. I took it out of my backpack and wrote about how it was a weekday afternoon and I was sitting in a park writing my thoughts down in a notebook, something my dad would never do or understand. With the exception of family, my dad’s pretty much only interested in things that can be traced back to money. Sitting in a park on a weekday writing your thoughts down in a notebook (while there’s money out there to be made) is to him a concept akin to the bobbing corpse in the irrigation ditch. I know because I understand the feeling. If I had been in the park without my notebook (my means to the Superman – see: Also Sprach Zarathustra), and had to sit there watching the sprinklers and listening to the two Spanish men all afternoon I too would’ve felt something corpselike bobbing before me. No, something had to be adding up to something else. It couldn’t just be what it was. The hunk of quarried marble is just that until the artist gives it meaning, and the world around us is no different.

Writing – getting it down like I really want to, the feeling that I’ve nailed it, that I’ve said it just like it felt or feels or painted the perfect image gives me a surge of dopamine between the ears like my dad must feel when he’s just been dealt pocket aces or hears the Pavlovian bells of the one-armed bandit.

I don’t think much about external success anymore. I write and I hardly send anything out. I will again when I’m ready. But for now, it’s about just getting it down, knowing at the end of each day that I’ve made good use of my time and something good has been accomplished. Something that holds up.

It helps thinking about Joyce taking 17 years to write Finnegans Wake or da Vinci taking 3 to paint The Last Supper, sometimes standing in front of it for a whole day without even touching it, just contemplating, all the while being nagged by the greybeards and clerics and naysayers for taking so fucking long.

Immediate gratification (& all its guises) can be alluring, but it’s the turtle – the one with the magic symbols on its shell – that brings home the best prize.

Gartenzwerg

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Gartenzwerg

Ankles and wrists bound, kidney thrashed
by molten rock and porcupine quills, nerves humming
with broken glass, I hang upside-down in a garden of Carrara
marble and long-stemmed gray lilacs, the sun pouring fire
through the trees, the windswept voice
of some French-speaking Polynesian
like a pigeon’s feather caressing me.

I strain toward the flaming arches, tear my flesh,
the wheel turns, the sky whirling with a flash of metal
and clouds in bodies of dragons and golden-rose,
the moon a polished shell
ascending in an aria of tremulous early morning blue.

It’s the dawn of Spring, the dawn of Chant music
and second chances,
of agony engendering acacias and the fall of Carina.

It’s the dawn of chiaroscuro and gargoyles and Priapus
in the garden, upright now and unbounded
but unwilling to go – I will stay here in hell and paint its pictures.