The Unillustrated Man

DSCN0535Call me a freak. Not a hippie freak, eco-freak, or Jesus freak, just a plain old freak. You see, I don’t have a tattoo. Yesterday I saw a geezer (i.e., someone older than I) downtown—he had to be at least 97—with a big red heart on his neck and the word “Alice,” which I thought was kind of sweet until I noticed just above it a raised hand holding a dagger. Some guys never get over their divorces.

A recent Harris poll found that 21% of U.S. adults now have a tattoo, and among the younger crowd it’s almost twice that. It won’t be long before Pope Francis has one—I suspect he secretly does—and there’ll be no unadorned skin left on the planet. Freaks like me will be eyed suspiciously. Why doesn’t that man have a tattoo? Is he trying to make a statement? It’s un-American, I tell you!

It’s not that I don’t think tattoos are cool. I am fascinated by the diverse and creative ways we set ourselves apart from the herd. When I see some young dude with green-streaked purple hair wearing barbed wire around his neck, twenty pounds of nose, ear, lip, and throat jewelry, and his skin adorned with the full complement of body art, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. How difficult it must be these days to achieve that perfect rebellious, insolent, don’t-give-a-damn look. It’s all about making a statement.

When I was a kid, the only tattoos I remember were those on the arms of my two ex-navy uncles. The rule was, if you were in the navy, jail, a carnival, or a gang you got one. But then, during the 60’s, tattoos really took off in this country as part of a cultural reaction to the values of the white, straight, middle class. Pretty soon, tattoos weren’t just for stoned out rock musicians or starving artists. Middleclass and upper class folks started sporting them. The rest is history. The prevailing culture simply swallowed up the protest symbol. Tattoos are now just something to do. When you see a tattooed politician, stock broker or brain surgeon riding to work on his Harley, you know the tattoo has lost any shock impact it once possessed.

It won’t be long before the tattoo gestapos find me. They’ll haul me into some back alley tattoo parlor and force me to undergo body art, and probably some piercing, too.
So I’ve decided to be proactive. Rather than allowing them to put some tacky tattoo of Mickey Mouse, Miley Cyrus, or worse on my arm, I’ll have a design all worked out. That way, when they come crashing through the front door I’ll have something to show them. They might go easier on me, knowing that I’ve put a little thought into it.

Being a poet, I thought I could have one of my little poems inserted under my skin in tasteful script, on a part of my body normally exposed. I don’t mind sharing my poems, but having to take my shirt off to let someone read a poem is too great a price to ask of my art. Of course, there’s always the risk of would-be poetry critics coming up to me and provoking a scene. It doesn’t rhyme. How it can it be poetry? He obviously took that line straight out of Frost.

Perhaps I could reproduce some famous paintings for my body art. I can see one arm sporting Monet’s Les Quatre Arbres (Poplars), while the other features Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. On my neck (my legs are too hairy) I could have Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. That would get some attention. I do worry, however, that the aging canvas upon which they are painted would sag and fade with time, requiring extensive restoration.

I need a bold statement, something that will really stand out. Since I live in Arizona, why not get a brand burned into my flesh. It needs to be simple and concise, something that tells who I am—maybe a little heart with the words “Irreverent Infidel” or “In Silliness We Trust.” For once in my life, I might actually get ahead of the curve. These days, it’s all about branding.

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The Bathers

The_Bathers,_1884,_by_William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_-_Art_Institute_of_Chicago_-_DSC09582

The Bathers, William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884, Art Institute of Chicago. Public domain image

The wall above my desk
cried out for something—
a seascape perhaps,
full of Neptune’s fury.

At last I found it—
the perfect painting
by a Frenchman
named Bouguereau.

Attractively framed
in large format,
it looms over me
as I fish for inspiration.

True, there’s not much
sea in my seascape,
just a little patch
of blue on the right,

mostly blocked by two
lovely naked ladies
in the foreground
enjoying the beach.

I could say they’re my muses—
in a way that’s true—though
the inspiration they offer
is hardly poetic.

No daughters of Zeus
or Mnemosyne, these
are women of earth
whose every curve I adore.

I feel that I know them.
By the wry looks on their
faces, it seems they know
my thoughts as well.

They remind me who I am—
a creature of lusts and dreams,
grounded by the tingle
of flesh and blood.

Originally published October 2015, at Wilderness House Literary Review  http://www.whlreview.com/no-10.3/poetry/GeneTwaronite.pdf

Impolite Conversations

Gene Twaronite's The Absurd LifeIt seems that whenever we set out on a family visit, my wife takes me aside and reminds me about not discussing certain topics. “What good does it do?” she’ll say. “You can’t change people’s opinions. You’ll just get all hot under the collar. Just relax and be sociable.”

“So what should I talk about?”

“You know! No politics, religion, environment or health stuff.”

“Can I at least talk about philosophy or economics?”

“Hell no. You start talking about the meaning of life and the nature of good and evil, and people get uncomfortable. And you know where any talk about economics will lead. It’s capitalism versus socialism, the 1% and the 99%. You want to start a war?”

The only things left are sports and TV, and even those can lead to trouble. “What’s with their left baseman? He’s got dreads down to his knees. And their catcher’s wearing a prayer shawl and a yarmulke. What are you, some kind of bigot? Speaking of bigots, did you see the Donald last night? Man, what a buffoon! Hey, don’t knock Donald. He makes a lot of sense. I don’t see you making billions of dollars.”

You can always talk about the weather. “Say, wasn’t that some storm last night? My house is underwater, and they say all of Florida will be soon. Well, at least it put out the wildfires. Do you think all these things have anything to do with …? Don’t say it! Say what? You were going to bring up climate change, weren’t you? Actually, I was going to say that it might signal the apocalypse, as revealed in Revelations.”

Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but wasn’t there a time when we could simply talk about things without risking the total meltdown of civilization? Today, there is no real desire to listen and consider anyone’s opinion but one’s own. We launch our talking points like missiles, hoping to score points. “Oh, that was a good one. She got you there.” Instead of trying to digest what people say, we’re too busy thinking about our next clever retort. We ask questions only to embarrass or put off guard anyone who dares to challenge our cherished beliefs. We push our opponents’ buttons and laugh as they get flustered.

Have to admit, I’m not always a polite conversationalist. I grow impatient with small talk. I want to suck the marrow out of you, to know what it is you think and feel down to your bones. As far as I’m concerned, the only topics worth talking about are those which inspire, ignite, or anger us, which may explain why I don’t receive a lot of dinner invitations.

I miss some of the family dinner discussions we had growing up. Not that they were always civil. I do recall a lot of yelling, but no hitting, biting, or scratching. There would be something in the news about some politician, labor strike, or cultural fad, and we were off. The conversation might veer toward diets, as for instance the time my younger sister became a vegetarian. I remember pummeling her with questions. “What’s the matter with meat? Eating meat is natural. What are those canines for, if not to tear flesh? You have to kill something. How is killing a carrot more ethical than killing a cow?” There was much laughter around the dinner table, at my poor sister’s expense. As I look back on it, though, beneath the sarcastic veneer, there was a desire to know and understand her reasons. She must have got through to me. It was not long before I, too, became a vegetarian.

Our family was fortunate to have an official discussion referee. Whenever things got too hot in the dining room, my mother, holding a plate of steaming pot roast, would enter and give us all that look. In a grim voice, she would say, “Nutilk!”—the Lithuanian word for “shut up.” Then she would smile and tell us to eat.

In her quiet, no nonsense way, my mother was telling us that we were still a family and to put away our differences. For her, la famiglia always came first. She saw the dangers of a divided house. Our country is not a family, of course, but as citizens we do, or should, all share a common allegiance to our nation—a nation of many voices, voices that have become increasingly shrill and unyielding. There comes a time when we need to stop shouting at each other and listen for a change. Sit down and break bread. Raise a glass of wine as you toast your differences. And remember to laugh. In the immortal words of both Lincoln and Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

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