Tuesday, February 9, 2016

About England - Part One - Mortimer

In 1984, my parents gave me the graduation present I wanted:  money for Europe. On some (by today's terms) ridiculously small sum I planned to see all of it. England to France to Italy, at least. First stop, England, as it ever was on the grand tour. I went with a girlfriend from Georgetown who happened to hail from a particular strain of casual East Coast snobbery that, without totally realizing, I was pretty much at the end of my patience prior to Heathrow.

So, jet-lagged, through London to Reading. There was perhaps a buggy that picked us up and took us to  Mortimer, where we lodged with the Earl's son and his ever-so-plucky-let's-grab-gooseberries-from-the-garden wife Rachel. (I'm not naming a name in this except Rachel's.) Over two weeks, we went to Ascot and Henley and (my doing) Wimbledon. Again, casual snobbery. We went to lunch at a country estate and were served cold fish, and then walked the grounds. Rachel talked afterwards about "that awful man," and all I could think was the obvious: "Then why did you have two American kids who are on the big vacation of their lives give up an afternoon for that?"

At Ascot, this fellow in his seventies tried to make courteous small talk and I smilingly kept saying that I was sorry that I just couldn't quite catch his meaning; I can't, you don't, we shouldn't  It devolved into chaos. I hadn't taken "Northern England" in college.

But, because Wimbledon was on, Rachel also was compelled to talk about Virginia Wade's "awful accent." Virginia Wade, for whom I had been a ballboy, so had some affection. In any case, to say publicly that you find an accent repellent... that's no good. Aren't we taught that English people don't do that? Rachel was a true Earl's fishwife in Shetland sweaters -- never going to deign to dress up to be liked, never going to change the shoddy carpeting or fix the heating in the unimpressive manor house so that her many guests might be comfortable, always going to think herself practical and English in an Emma Thompson sort of way. And always going to be calling people "awful." I loathed her.

Her husband, on the other hand, just wanted to play tennis (which I did, every night, losing, keep in mind that it was bright until ten) and laugh. And he never said "awful," for Christ's sake. I said I'd only say one name but what the hell his name was Hugh.

I was bored; I'm not sure why anyone let me alone at 9pm to drink Nescafe; I"m not sure where everyone else was. In the morning I'd have a bath. That enforced upon the American male. 

We went to a Farmington friend's place in Knightsbridge for cocktails, the bluff Capitalist father proclaiming loudly how impossible the English were. Me, a sudden convert to bluff Capitalists vs. Rachel, the most negative woman I'd met since my college roommate's mother, who once walked through Dumbarton Oaks endlessly repeating, "Can you imagine how much work this was?" Yeah, that's the way to approach a glorious bit of floral imagination. Think about how much trouble it'd be to create behind your house in Baltimore.

Forgive me: I had a beautiful, sunny mother who would have laughed off bad fish luncheons and side-eyed pretension reflexively, and delighted in Dumbarton Oaks. If I hadn't been pushing folks over the fence and then tumbling after...Peter Dickens and ..

Thursday, January 28, 2016

And You Come Out Looking Like Montgomery Clift

Dad was always bleeding, reeling, rocking on his back, pressing things against his skin. He cleaned guns in the den and sanded hulls on the back porch and wrote up best practices in the kitchen, his fountain pen on legal pad beside the electric typewriter. He wrote me unreadable ten-page letters at Georgetown. There was extra postage on them.

He had blue eyes and black hair and I have neither. We did not get along until I graduated, and then we did. Keens Chop House.

I am shaped like him, lean on top, broad shoulders (a classic 40) and crazy athlete legs that are good for nothing. Everybody else got blue eyes; I got big calves. I watched the skinny jeans craze come and go with delight. You idiotic Ludlow boys... You never went sailing with my father or drank beer in lakeside taverns.

Dad moved to Belgium in the late eighties, some gig that Goodyear offered for awhile. He was SO enthusiastic about Belgian beer and European food. It was the best thing that could have happened to him. He'd been in the Army between undergrad and law school at West Virginia. There is a famous story about him getting two sets of orders, one for Italy and one for Korea. He called a general, or the governor, and the guy said, "Well, Bill, lose that other set of papers."

So he went to the Cinque Terre, and then to Munich. He got a German Shepherd and a Fiat. He learned to ski so well that when he came back to the States he was fit to teach at Killington. (And instruct all of us at Boston Mills and Brandywine.)

Dad was always bleeding, messing himself up, but he was unreasonably concerned with our safety. Never mind that I did nothing but drunk drive once I turned seventeen. Dad still had his eye on mowing the lawn. Somebody had once lost a toe; fingers were exploded on Fourth of July. He wanted you to wear his old Army boots, and he didn't understand why anyone would ever play with fire crackers. Or stay up late at night.

The thing I love best about my dad is how flabbergasted he was by the idea of staying up late. It didn't make sense to him and it doesn't make sense to me, unless you are trying to get laid. (And that's only in New York, in your twenties and thirties. In the East Village. At Wonderbar.)

One time, shudder to think, I flew home from Georgetown into the Akron-Canton airport. I'd somehow started sporting a Goodwill Fedora. I had a jean jacket on and a serious hat, and I came into the airport area where everyone was waiting for Christmas deliveries.

Dad said, "Jesus, Robert. I'm standing here with all these Akron people watching their rotten kids get off the plane. And you come out looking like Montgomery Clift."

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Year-End Top Ten


2015 Top Ten List
Everybody else is doing it, so why can't I?

10  Toyota 

For the beauty of Bluetooth and the ostensible "freedom." (I could drive up 95 to see you; I just choose not to. I am a little bit scared and very bored by highways.)

09  Salice Salentino

Surpassingly fun to say and excellent to drink. Seriously, seek it out, even at Trader Joe's. From the boot.

08  Gilmore Girls

I may be personally responsible for its revival; I have that kind of power. In any case, it got me through last winter.

07  Hannah Cohen

Apparently I have yet to convince one person on earth to listen to her. But there's still time, 2016 is weeks away.

06  Facebook

The freelancer's frenemy. I can't quit you.

05  San Francisco

Well, that was an unusual vacation. It felt like I was airlifted out of winter. 70+ degree weather, odd job interviews, and I covered the waterfront. I covered the Haight and the Castro and the Mission and Hayes Valley too. But mostly the waterfront. On bike, by foot... I climbed hills and sat outside and drank a lot of wine. Eventually to Marin and then Napa. Along the way, I forgot that I was 52. And a guy named Robert.

04  Alexandria

Old Town, Del Ray, Seminary Road. All these (fifty) years later, this is still where I feel most at home. Relaxed, engaged, warm, comical. Too bad it's unaffordable. On Monday they found this in a Fairfax park, breaking my heart. That picture at the top is where I first lived, in a small house on Pitt Street with rats.

03  Tennis

This year playing edges watching for the first time in a long time. (Thanks, Earle.) I am now the proud owner of a one-handed backhand. Twitter became important, particularly because of Martina and (of all people) Brad Gilbert. Very much hoping that all hell breaks loose on the ATP and WTA next year. I'll continue with my cheer: "Come on, Roger!"

02  Comedy

I don't have to set the stage:  It was an awful, awful year. So thank god for Key & Peele, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Jennifer Lawrence, Tina Fey, The Onion and PARKS & RECREATION.

01  Writing

I actually made most of my money this year in the filthy, filthy trade of words on paper. And I revived this here corpse. And I wrote some poems. And fiddled with my epic short story, "Paddle Tennis." And scribbled down a couple of ideas for novels, plays, screenplays. And...

Thirty years ago, I thought I'd be a writer. I got sidetracked.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Merriman Road: Running Away

When we moved in it was already my sixth house, and maybe the ugliest of all. It never occurred to me that I'd stay there. It never occurred to my mother, either. At that point we were on a pace of a new home every 1.5 years.

There were maps in the basement that showed our pretty (ugly) Victorian farmhouse was the only one on Merriman Road between us and Stan Hywet. But all of our friends were sure we'd move down the street, closer to it -- or at least next to Pat or Steve. Judie Bigelow had space reserved for the inevitable Barr tennis court. Looking back on it, and this just occurred to me, I believe she may have been in collusion with my mother.

But Dad thwarted this. Perhaps his commute was better where we were. I drove it recently and was surprised how far away Goodyear was.

Maybe he was mad by then. If I'd been Dad at that age there are very few reasons you could have dragged me away from that peculiar house with all its porches. (Eventually, for the record, Goodyear bought the house and sent him to Brussels. There ended the Barrs.) There was a whitewashed basement where I had a chemistry set and the laundry was done and there were very many subterranean rooms, one designated for wine.

I lived in the maid's quarters. Coming from Maplewood (Susan) I was told that I'd be living there, the laundry chute in my room. (In Maplewood, I had three rooms to myself on the third floor.) My dad put the barrel of a shotgun underneath my mattress and pulled it out at 5am on Saturdays; everyone threw underwear down through the slot in my floor. Pat will affirm this, and Charlie would. Woody and Mark will confirm that it was a too small house with my brothers right next door. Who only Woody liked.

The creaky back staircase was mine, though. I talked on it with the red wall phone coiled from the kitchen and crept down it for about ten years, Dad protesting, especially when I talked to Mark. With him and Woody, Linda, Eve, Susan, Missy, Betsy, Doug, Rachel, Pam, Robin, Dana, Eric, Libby, Gibby, Brett, Bill, Jill, Tamra, John, Pat, Toni, Gretchen. Fred. Steve. Charlie. Suzanne Spiller. Walt. Traci and Jay.
For such a nice boy, all I ever did was run away.

Friday, November 27, 2015


One year I lived in San Francisco. For the summer, with a couple, girls, on the steep hillside above the Castro. At first, in the morning, I worked for Chevron, then had my afternoons free to play tennis and go to the gym. That is all I did, by daylight. I spent four to six hours getting exercise, and no one thought that was unusual.

Sometimes I went to the gym twice, often played tennis twice, and no one thought that was unusual.

To this day, I can tell you where lies every public tennis court in the Castro and Noe Valley and Buena Vista and Cole Valley and Hayes Valley and the Mission. If I go as a tourist I care less about anything anybody else cares about and more about re-locating hidden tennis courts on Twin Peaks.

It was uncharacteristically beautiful that year; the fog burned off by noon or one, when I escaped BIG OIL and Metroed back up Market Street. I was so in shape that people stopped me on Castro to comment on my calves. You'd be surprised how quickly you brush that off at 32.

We listened to this album incessantly. And then Alanis Morrisette. Sometimes in the late afternoon I would go to the bars in the Castro; for some reason, almost never at night. I was so early to bed and early to rise. I didn't meet a lot of guys to care about, but when I did they were all listening to the same music. Oh, and Radiohead. But if you spent the night in another guy's bed, he would play Sarah Mclachlan for you at one or two a.m., again with coffee in bed the next day, unselfconsciously.

One guy, a very handsome guy, asked me to dinner. He MADE me dinner. He was courting me. But he started talking to me about his forays into the "leather lifestyle" and I left before the pasta was cooked. He couldn't understand my lack of understanding, and I guess I can't understand it now myself.

But it did save us some time, my cutting losses.

That year I was doing something else; I was writing screenplays. Not like you and I are always writing screenplays, but writing them with a professional promise, the best agent in LA, so everything I was doing was temporary. I was glancing out the window at the abrupt vertical hillside while you made dinner anyway.

Friday, November 20, 2015

That Makes a Thief

Lost & Found

Let me love you
in an empty townhouse
on Fairfax Street

Let me laugh at you
sweating twilights
in Glover Park

Across splintery floors
and blankets of yard

Gin and Tonics
dry Martinis
hair slicked back

I lived by the canal
and got my hair cut there
was followed everywhere

Except to school

In the brightest light of summer
the steps to campus
in Mississippi shadows

When I got dinner
the bright-eyed fellow
couldn’t do the math

I had barely six dollars for
ham and cheese, turned out
he had much less than that

I only needed a sandwich and
wouldn’t have minded losing
50 cents

Some grumbling from the back
got him trembling, made him forget
or not realize

That 90 minus 63
will not matter, ever
beyond Georgetown

Meanwhile, back at the Papermill
there were accusatory messages:
to whomever stole my Tab…

Well, I stole your Tab!

I was poor and I was thirsty
and had less than perfect respect

That makes a thief

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's the chocolate, it is the chocolate on the tooth

One time I dated this guy who lived in Brooklyn, beyond most pales ca. 1989. His best friend had a neat party trick: He could imitate Cocteau Twins. Elizabeth Fraser's mesmerizing nonsense baby talk, which is still currency in these parts.

I first heard Cocteau Twins at Life Cafe of the terrible Mexican and undeniable cool in 1986. It was late for me to come to them, but I immediately bought cassettes at Tower Records and caught up on Avenue B. Treasure. The Pink Opaque. Pearly Dew Drops. Pandora.

And she is innocent! She is the Spangle Maker!