Friday, November 29, 2013


Love my dog, but…a five dollar bill, the window sill, a signed first edition, sofa cushion, two pairs of shoes, the doctor’s bill, blanket, paintbrushes, washcloths, a table leg, the phone book, a bowl of wooden fruit—each a recent victim to the teething process. It’s an odd list by most standards, but perfectly ordinary for a five month-old puppy with 24-7 machine-like teeth that will gnaw on anything to relieve the ache of baby teeth, baby gums. Amazement over her choice of objects to chew on has lessened over the weeks, and now I wouldn’t be surprised to catch my new puppy chewing on a doorknob. Knew when I brought her home that a long period of teething and chewing were part of the deal, just didn’t imagine it reaching as far as knuckles and kneecaps. 

Little Miss Farina came to the Old Dixie Lane homestead sometime around mid-October. An adoption pup, she reportedly got lost and wasn’t recovered by her original owners. A four month-old labrador-retriever mix with a honey gold coat and a sweet disposition, she arrived here weighing seventeen pounds. Five weeks later that weight has almost doubled. From first sight she seemed the perfect mate for this huge expanse of fenced land amidst the oak trees and squirrels, raccoons, gopher turtles, snakes and the occasional alligator. Those creaturely neighbors aside, her biggest fascination has been with the two horses living next door, one of which is a full grown dwarf standing all of three and a half feet. Farina (named for the honey-brown cereal) spends part of each day barking at the horses across the fence, and on trips to the mailbox pulls hard on the leash as we pass the neighbor’s gate. Coming out one day to see what all the barking was about, the dwarf pony easily cowed the dog with its bold approach and cocky head tosses.

Sketches of Farina by J

A part of it all is getting used to holes in the yard, lots of holes. Seems there isn’t a time that Farina is out romping in her one-acre playground that she doesn’t dig a new hole or two. Few would mind a scatter of holes dug way at the back of the yard, and there are a number of those, but the two heavily favored digging spots that worry me are in the driveway and in places along the fence line. The second is obvious, but going in and out of a drive that looks and feels like a prairie dog village is a bumpy ride. There’s a cure in the dog psychology books and that's underway, but the holes are many and the ingredients for that cure take time to gather. A lady at the adoption center with great experience in dogs and digging told me to deposit a pile of the dog’s “business” in the hole and cover it up, that she would be put off and not dig in that spot again. So far it’s working, but new holes appear every day. 

The fun and companionship of having a dog are special but it was a different economic era when I last had a dog and I’ve quickly learned that dog owners everywhere will shout in loud chorus, “It doesn’t come cheap!” I’m wondering who to apply to for child support. Go to the dog store for the smallest thing and ten minutes later leave the store fifty dollars lighter. Wondering too if the vet’s rates are competitive with those of brain surgeons. As far as food and feeding go, one lesson is clear: Dogs will eat more if the food is a cheaper, lower quality food and less if the food is rich in the nutrition they need for growth. Now I understand why some brands of kibble are $45.00 a bag—they are more filling because less of it provides the basis of good health, and the dog, or stomach at least, knows that.

The interesting part comes in realizing that without opposable thumbs and a tongue capable of shaping syllables, communication for a dog is heavily weighted toward gentle biting, licking, chewing and body language. I am convinced that facial expression is a valuable tool for dogs and more than a few times the eyes of my puppy have made clear what words would express if she were capable. How many times have I looked at Farina and clearly understood that she is trying to convey her shame, her impatience, anger, happiness, or confusion?

And with my opposable thumbs and the countless words on my tongue, it’s me who all too often helplessly chases her around the yard unable to make myself clear, grinding my teeth with impatience, angry at the dog and myself as well and altogether baffled at how a honey-colored bundle with floppy ears and too many teeth has completely captured my heart.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Remembering Joe Brainard

Would be a surprise to learn that I am alone in struggling with the work of artist-writer Joe Brainard, a man of prolific production during the first 45 years of his short life. Brainard died in 1994 at the age of 52, having stopped exhibiting in the early 1980s. Despite the decision to distance himself from the art world, he enjoyed admirable success as both artist and writer, his first solo exhibition in New York coming at the age of 22. With a few infrequent exceptions, he had stopped producing art by the mid-1980s. Work by Brainard is currently included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum. His medium stretched from drawing to collage, assemblage and painting, as well as half a dozen book and magazine covers. It could be argued that some small part of his success came from the advantage of being part of a group that included many talented New York artists, poets and writers, not to mention a few wealthy supporters. Many remember Joe Brainard more for his unusual but wonderful memoir, I Remember, published in 1970.

“Garden XV” 1971; watercolor and cut paper

The struggle with Brainard’s work mentioned above comes with the landslide of images that make up his output. Many of his collages are immediately stunning, several of his paintings hold the eye without letting go, some of the assemblages provoke a study of the almost uncountable and minute parts. Pages of drawings prove that the artist was a skilled draftsman. In spite of all the good, I suspect that some viewers of a Joe Brainard retrospective might wonder what all the hoopla was about, might ask, “What’s so special about this stuff?” Joe Brainard produced a large catalogue of work and in my opinion not all of it is up to par. The first question could easily be, “Where in all of this is the Joe Brainard style?” In fact, there is no distinct quality in his work that gives the viewer a sense of connection or continuance, nothing to identify the art as the work or style of one man. It is a question not unfamiliar to people who know his work, and Brainard himself was quick to admit that the work had no distinct style that could be defined as his alone.

“Skyline” 1974; gouache and collage on paper

Thanks to lifelong friend, poet and editor Ron Padgett, we now have The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard to give us an inside look at the mind of this singular man. It makes a very helpful companion to his art and life while also showing that Brainard could on occasion be carried away by his own words, fall prey to the overly confessional and at times be plain old mundane and trivial. I expect that only close friends of the writer could manage each of the 517 pages in this collection. Honesty is to be admired on the page, but there is a time when it all seems too much like someone shouting out, “Look at me!”

Untitled (Whippoorwill), 1973; oil on canvas

The exception is his marvelous and even extraordinary book, I Remember. The format is simple: The writer recalls in two or three lines a list of things he remembers from growing up in Tulsa in the 40s and 50s, and on into the moments of his life in New York, Boston and Vermont during the 60s and early 70s. Paul Auster called the book, ‘A masterpiece. One of the few totally original books I’ve ever read.’ Since its publication and several re-printings, teachers everywhere have used the book in classrooms to teach the writing of both poetry and prose. A few samples hint at the writer’s gift for poignant recollection…

I remember the small diamond heart necklace that Arlene Francis always wore on What’s My Line.

I remember the “swoosh” of Loretta Young’s skirt as she entered the room each week.

I remember that Rock Hudson “is still waiting for the right girl to come along.”    

I remember on newsstands, Jet magazine. But never getting up the courage to thumb through a copy.

I remember reading the big sex scene on the beach in Peyton Place.

I remember having a crush on a boy in my Spanish class who had a pair of olive green suede shoes with brass buckles just like a pair I had. (“Flagg Brothers.”) I never said one word to him the entire year.

I remember the first time I got a letter that said “After Five Days Return To” on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.

I remember the kick I used to get going through my parents’ drawers looking for rubbers. (Peacock.)

I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

Untitled (sardines), 1975; gouache on paper

Untitled (sweets), 1972; mixed media collage

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America