One Third and Three Fourths

Sign in Indianapolis

July 3, 2011: I believe the words you're looking for here are 'Good Grief.'

Rocket pop!

July 4, 2014: Stay cool, America.

July 4, 2013: Your Daily Dose of Americana: Lily Martin Spencer
Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses

Lily Martin Spencer, Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'lasses (1856). Brooklyn Museum.

In general, I find myself fascinated by the idea of American identity. I'm an American, after all, so engaging in the casual exercise of national navel-gazing is, if a little vain, at least not surprising. It inspires me that there are a minimum of 310 million ways to be an American (and that's just right now) but they all fit together as “American.” Who we are, who we think we are, and how we relate to one another and redefine one another is a study that's not totally unhelpful. And today, on the Fourth, it's something to celebrate.
So, in celebration of one version of our identity, I give you this dose of Americana, this reflection of collective self: Lily Martin Spencer's 1856 work, Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'lasses. Today, I'm celebrating our saucy independence, our frankness, our fulsome super-abundance. (I'll pause so you can appreciate “saucy independence” while referring to a painting in which a pot of molasses has a starring role.)
I could have chosen almost any American artwork: something from the Ashcan School or the obligatory Washington Crossing the Delaware or the Signing of the Declaration. I could have used one of the ubiquitous encaustic flags of Jasper Johns. I could have courted spambots and being flagged as “mature content” by focusing on Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nude series. I could have gone with an Ansel Adams photograph, or Georgia O'Keefe's magnificent Radiator Building at Night. All of these say something about us, too.
There was a part of me that wanted to write about the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago yesterday, leaving 7,000 Americans dead in the fields of Pennsylvania, a sobering reminder of the cruel price of unity. The art historian would here compare Spencer's image of the feminine antebellum North with Matthew Brady's photographs of the war and then finish with Winslow Homer's subtle 1865 masterpiece The Veteran in a New Field. (“If it could be put into words, there would be no reason to paint.”
The other direction I could have gone is important, but perhaps too easy: look at Egypt yesterday, where the Arab Spring has become an overripe perma-Arab Summer and the revolution continues. President Morsi removed from power by the will of the people and the might of the military. Look at Syria. Look at the change, the uncertainty, the growing pains as a people try to discover who they will be and how they will chart their course and how they will be governed. Aspiration and violence and revolution and all the things we Americans once were but now are not.
We are independent and we are thankfully, sometimes miraculously, past that revlolutionary episode, past our American Spring. (A spring I wish we would more often remember as we look and judge what is “happening over there” with “those people.”) For all our profane and ridiculous, vitriolic politics; for all our disagreements, our inequities, our commercialism, our vanities, and our errors, we are independent.
Saucily independent, frequently surrounded by overripe abundance. Prone to a flirtatious self-confidence and a basically good-natured sense of humor. Kiss me and you'll kiss the 'lasses.
It's an identity I'll take, happily and with pride. It's not the only identity we have, certainly, but that doesn't diminish our ownership of it: it is ours. We, the people, in our more-and-less perfect union, our more-and-less perfect identity.
July 4, 2011: The Lake House
I sit here, my feet dangling in a fake lake (retention pond) and there are minnows approaching my toes and friends in the house playing cards.

Still, I sit here.

It seems everything has been neglected of late. Life has pulled some funny twists and though I've kept up with my extra-diligent note-taking and have so many things to write about (presidential race, Medicare/Medicaid, Afghanistan, Cleopatra's nose, soul-sucking architecture and urban studies in Indianapolis, et cetera, et cetera)… well, there has been no time, no mental energy to write about them.

And so, as I sit with my feet in lord-knows-what, I will share this:

My grandparents had a lake house once upon a time. It was a quiet lake— more pontoons than speedboats, a quiet place. I don't even know that speedboats were allowed, frankly. If one could combine Hemingway's “clean, well-lighted place” and Woolf's “room of one's own” with a fresh-smelling lake, that is the place. There was a gigantic sun-porch, screened from the mosquitos; the yard behind was shady. The lake was over-grown with lily-pads and water vegetation and the air smelled of fish and lake and worms and summer. And grace.

There was a stone fireplace inside. I felt certain that fireplace in the cottage was built for me, waiting for me to be adult enough to light it for myself. There were small bedrooms, a tiny shower, a kitchen where I ate many a peanut butter sandwich. And now that I am old enough to long for such a place it is gone, gone, gone.

My grandfather passed away early, very young, at only 51 or 52. A not uncommon story; a far too-common story. The lake house was sold. And year, after year, after year, as surely as I have missed my beloved grandfather, I have missed that lake house, its quiet rules, its fishy smell, its possibilities.

I long for my grandfather, so many years after his passing. I smell him; his coats in the closet in an ancient (so I thought) house smelled of him: Aqua Velva (or was it Afta? Cool blue) and goodness, leather buttons, heavily-varnished and glossy dark wood doors with metal ovular door knobs. I smell his morning breakfasts, still mingled with his after-shave, and always it is 5:30 in the morning, sunlight streaming in, on him, his glass of Tang and his bowl of All-Bran. He was quiet, he was smart. He was funny and unfailingly kind. My grandmother still tells stories of him doing cartwheels on the yard at the lake house, not too long before that final diagnosis of cancer, not too long before he was gone. I miss him. My heart, in fact, frequently breaks at the thought that I never got to know him as the fully-grown me, the one not too self-absorbed in that whole business of growing up to ask him who he really was. I wish I had known. And in moments of trial, if intercessors there be (I know not), I pray to him as much as to anyone: Lead the way, my Papaw. I still miss you. I wish I had known you better. Please ask god to send help for x, y, z.

And too, I pray for that lake house. For fireworks on the Fourth of July followed by chocolate Sprites and cheeseburgers at the Streamliner, sweet sleep in the cottage, and sausages and bacon in the morning when the grass is still wet and the air smells of magic, sunscreen, fish, and possibilities.

It's been a foul month, this June 2011: bad news for loved ones and a job that prevents me from living, prevents me from writing, from reading, from thinking, from feeling like myself or being good for or to those I love so much. And so I dream, I ache for that lake house. How I long to trundle that cat of mine, the laptop, a staggeringly heavy pile of books to that lake house. I'd light a fire in the stone fireplace at night, at day I would split time between that sunporch and the dock, dangling my feet in mossy, lily-pad waters. I'd think. I'd find perspective. I'd find my way.

I would write the kind of stuff I've longed to write all along. I'd read. I'd daydream. I'd be a better person, I'm just sure, at the lake house, with memories of Papaw, and my quiet little lake. Heck, I might even find a way to make sense of it all, the bad news, the past, the loss of my grandfather, the way I've squandered my soul on worry. The lake house was really that special. But it just can't be. So, here: I share this with you as I soak my feet in the retention pond (oh, suburbia, you cunning wench!) where the neighborhood children both fish and pee (I've seen it). And there is something in it that approximates the dock, so long as my mental eye is kind and squints a bit. I have friends in the house, playing cards, and they are kind and I am grateful. And my family is only a phone call away, tied strongly by heartstrings, blood, and a sense of humor that is peculiarly our own. I live in the U.S., where it is a national holiday and I am, at heart, a patriot.

I long for the lake house. But it's not bad to be here. Bless us. Bless those fighting for us. Bless the lake house, my family, and oh, oh, oh, my sweet Papaw. And bless the possibilites that come when one's feet are in water and summer is here and evening falls. Perhaps there will someday be time to write the stuff I mean to write, to learn, to love, to study, to make a difference.

And, even if not, there is still water. And memory. And the smell of Aqua Velva, sunscreen, and lake.

Happy Fourth of July.


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