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The Joy Menu #44: Fertilizer (II)
"Don’t we chafe against the smooth stucco, the clean roofs, the vibrant bushes, the deep, belly-breathing safety this place provides for us, the quiet, the plasticine which is the opposite of art?"
In 1979, after finishing a Masters in Printmaking at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, my father moved his young wife (my mother) and baby (my sister) from Michigan to New York, to work with a papermaker named Douglass Howell.
There, he was given a National Endowment for the Arts grant (which paid $400 a month; “enough to just about cover our rent,” my mother says on the recording I have), passed from another artist who abandoned the grant (“he was a very difficult guy, Mr. Howell; no one could work with him,” my father says. “Except you,” my mother adds in the background and laughs).
They spent the next few years living in a small house next to a nursery, where my father would later get a job (my father: “I was pretty strategic when I went to ask for work; I brought the baby”). It was there, at that job, that he began to see himself as a landscaper; potting plants, cataloging flowers, and taking classes at the local agricultural college.
But first, he apprenticed as a papermaker, arriving at Mr. Howell's in the morning while the man ate breakfast: butter on toast with coffee (“he must have been in his early sixties; he had a funny goatee and a quirky air about him”). They’d sit on the porch, and talk, before heading into the studio to do the work: soaking fibers, blending pulp, screening, drying, pressing.
Meanwhile, my mother went about the business of raising my sister — in Huntington Station, the underdeveloped town where, some months later, I’d be born. A place I don’t remember, and have never visited (my mother: “it was so nice then; there were farms still; it was perfect for kooks. I loved it”).
Recorded March 26, 2018, Cleveland, OH
Mom: “For some crazy reason — which makes sense if you know Alan — he decided that paper was too expensive, and if he ordered it in bulk and sold it to the students...so he started a papermaking business: Rubin Fine Paper.”
Dad: “The company that imported the paper from Europe was too expensive, you couldn’t buy it in the stores — it was too much. But if you bought it wholesale as a company, in bulk — a thousand sheets or 500 sheets from France — you could sell them for a quarter of the price and students could have cheaper paper, you could make a few bucks, and I could have my own paper.”
Mom: “So Alan started doing that, and he became interested in papermaking, and that led him to Mr. Howell.”
Dad: “He was a retired engraver, a union engraver from the old days. He’d had his career; he became interested in paper and studied paper — he wrote a lot of letters to the Japanese; he was a busy guy, and he was interested in stuff.
Me: “Did he have a family or was he just out there on Long Island on his own?”
Dad: “He had a bunch of kids, but they were already older; they were elsewhere with their own kids. He’s the one who told me ‘Have kids; don’t worry about making a living — just have kids. You’ll make a living when you have to.’”
Me: “Prophetic words, for you...”
Dad: “He had good advice. He was a good person. He was just a kook.”
Inside stucco houses, beneath freshly paneled roofs, next to green bushes glistening with dew, beside the spitting hiss of reclaimed water spraying haphazardly from a broken sprinkler, Irvine opens like a yawn.
There is a gentleness, a lulling contentment, a self-satisfaction in the air — it’s as sweet-smelling as linoleum and as safe as gauze. But this is where we are.
My father has no casual friends. I’ve never seen him shoot the shit. Over the years, he’s collected a few oddities — men like him to the degree that they, too, are unlike anyone else around (including him).
He’s most excited by one friend, a jazz pianist in exile from the mainstream, living with a bohemian mentality in this town full of contractors, headhunters, and orthodontists. When the micronutrients finally allow my father something extra—some financial stability, some stretch, some affluence — he decides to invest in his career.
Suddenly there is a record label. Registered royalties. Endless discussions as they make their way around the Loop. Long days in the studio. When we can, we go along, my brother and I — we’re young musicians, after all. It’s thrilling, and tedious. Hours in grey paneled sound-proofed rooms. Hours of watching grown men adjust color-coded plastic knobs. Hours of waiting, and sitting on ripped couches, and “let’s take that one more time.”
A highlight: when the lunch tray arrives, the gigantic Romanian pan flute player eats a sandwich in an inhale. Another: the explosive cacophony of the drum set, gauzed behind the soundproofing, which explodes in the air when the heavy door unsticks for a second, then goes instantly mute as it closes.
They produce an album by a young folk rock musician; we’re only a few years in age from him, but this doesn’t occur to us — he seems epically mature, a twenty-something. His boots. His half-unbuttoned shirts. His rough, wailing voice.
I remember long discussions about an expletive: at the climax of a song, the joint connecting a rumbling chorus to a soaring bridge: “FUCK.” We listen to it again and again in the car while we make our way to and from cello lessons, swim practice, marching band tournaments. “Yes, yes, it’s ill-placed,” we agree with our father. “Unnecessary, overdone.”
But is it? Don’t we relish yelling expletives as loud as we can into the cheap sound system we’ve set up in the garage? Don’t we hope for (and fear) the neighbors’ complaints as we practice our rowdy covers late into weekend afternoons? Don’t we chafe against the smooth stucco, the clean roofs, the vibrant bushes, the deep, belly-breathing safety this place provides for us, the quiet, the plasticine which is the opposite of art — don’t we yell our own “FUCKs” as loud as we can against them, as if the expletive itself were creative expression and its volume and reach the literal embodiment of our potential to break from the suburbs into a life of liberation, of meaning, of art?
One of the first things he does when he starts is re-pot a thousand roses for winter.
They arrive, dewy, in layers of wrapping, shipped from the west — a grow house or a field somewhere in Kern County, California, 25 miles northwest of Bakersfield.
He bends over the delicate buds, strips back what’s protecting them, gets them into new packaging, and puts them in the garage, where they’ll lay dormant through winter, and slowly regain leaves as the days begin to warm.
Then, his task is to schmooze: on the nursery floor, he, along with Mr. K (the owner) and his son-in-law, chat up the customers, offering advice on what grows well in the region, what pairs with what plants, what to do if something isn’t thriving. He finds this part entertaining, and sells almost without effort — as if transferring his own joy in the merchandise into the customer’s investment; as if his off-hand knowledge, his fascination with the stock is the secret to salesmanship. And maybe it is.
After work, it’s a two-hundred yard walk home — up a low-grade slope, across a local road, into the house where his pregnant wife and baby are waiting.
Is it here, in this role — his fingers in the wet soil of the roses, his voice clear in its offering of a product (which, once sold, has a place in someone’s home) — is it here, feeling good at something (as Mr. K and the customers, and the sale figures, tell him again and again) — that the two years’ effort with Mr. Howell, the many years of printmaking, of painting, of drawing, of study, the years of trying to place his work in galleries, of seeking representation, of seeking notice, of seeking to build a life of (a life off) self-expression — is it here that this passion begins to fade?
When Mr. K, impressed at how he understands (and sells) their landscaping services, suggests he consider studying landscape architecture, is this when the knot, already loosened, finally unties?
Does he come home one day, flush from success, filled with compliments, look at his baby, his wife, place his hand on her belly to feel me kicking and think: I can provide for this family. There is value in that.
And let go of art?
Days before my father dies, his friend visits — the jazz musician.
He’s sitting in his wheelchair, in a shirt and a diaper, his skinny legs (one paralyzed, the other only just starting to atrophy) sticking out with childish awkwardness, and his friend plays piano for him: a short improvisation, a wander up and down the keys.
It’s as if he’s been waiting for this: he sits in relaxed observance, feet dangling from his chair, lost in the melody. Everyone is crying.
But he’s calm. He’s come for a concert. Come to hear a short tune. Come for some music.
Always, a witness to, and in communion with, the art.
Onward to creative joy,