Domestic Bliss

Now that the weather has become brisk — no, belay that, the weather has become damp and raw — the cats snuggle up much closer to us at night. The one that licks my fingers is Lily, the one that sits on my flank is usually Nickel, and the one who sneezes — kerflooey — is Mr. Ferguson.

In the early light yesterday morning I started to roll over and the Engineer said “Hold still a moment.” I felt a slight ruffling of my hair, and then the springy tread of a cat rappelling off my pillow.

“There was a giant cat booger in your hair,” explained the Engineer. “I took care of it.”

There’s real love for you. Both of em.

Harry Belten

I was cleaning house just now, with the radio turned up, when the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto swung into its finale, and I stopped everything because of my late ex-husband and Harry Belten.

It might have been even before we were married, but certainly not long after, that my late and ex asked me whether I had ever read Barry Targan’s story “Harry Belten and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.” I see on the title page of the collected edition a copyright date of 1975;  he had seen it in Esquire magazine, which included the story in an anthology that we eventually ran to earth in the county library.

My late-and-ex treasured this story as much as anything he had ever read. Harry Belten is a duffer, a wage slave whose dream of performing on the violin can’t conquer his utter lack of anything like real ability; year after year he practices, and finally he decides that he’s not getting any younger, and he’s going to perform the Mendelssohn, goddammit.

If you know it — or if you’re already listening to the Perlman clip above — you know the piece is a technical broadside, requiring a fluency of fingering and bowing that’s right up there with composing triolets in Old French while skiing a slalom course and expounding quadratic equations. And it’s not just about skill, either; the piece is a fountain of aerobatic joy, a distillation of that rare experience when you are running and weigh nothing and can’t put a foot wrong. At least, that is how it comes out for a virtuoso of the violin; then there are the Harry Beltens of the world.

“How do you know the Mendelssohn?” Karnovsky asked him. His tone was tougher. A fool was a fool, but music was music. Some claims you don’t make. Some things you don’t say.

“I’ve studied it,” Harry answered.

“How long?” Karnovsky probed. “With whom?”

“Eighteen years. With myself. Ever since I learned how to play in all the positions, I’ve worked on the Mendelssohn. Every day a little bit. Phrase by phrase. No matter what I practiced, I always saved a little time for the Mendelssohn. I thought the last forty measures of the third movement would kill me. It took me four-and-a-half years.” Harry looked up at Karnovsky, but that innocent man had staggered back to the piano bench and collapsed. “It’s taken a long time,” Harry smiled. No matter what else, he was enjoying talking about his music.

“Eighteen years?” Karnovsky croaked from behind the piano.

“Eighteen years,” Harry reaffirmed, “and now I’m almost ready.”

Harry has saved up three thousand dollars, for a coach to help him prepare his concert, to rent a hall, to pay a symphony orchestra. His boss thinks he has cracked up. His wife is ready to have him declared mentally incompetent. His coach tries to talk him out of it, the orchestra tries to renege on the contract, but then there is the oldest member of the symphony board, a plaid flannel geezer with a dim view of what Is And Is Not Done:

“Do you know Turkey in the Straw?”

Harry nodded and played. Stennis was frantic. As Harry finished, he stood up. “Mr. Knox. I must insist on order.” He looked around him for support, and, much as they were enjoying the music, the old ladies nodded, reluctantly, in agreement-Board business was, after all, Board business. But Stanley Knox slapped the table for his own order.

“Quiet,” he commanded. “Let the boy play. Play The Fiddler’s Contest,” he ordered Harry.

“Mr. Knox!” Stennis shouted.

“Quiet!” Knox shouted back. “Let the boy play.”

Harry played.

Stennis hit his hand to his head and rushed noisily from the room.

One by one the old ladies tiptoed out, and then the treasurer left, and then Morgenstern, who walked by Harry and neither looked at him nor smiled nor frowned. Harry played on.

“Let the boy play,” Stanley Knox roared, pounding the table. “Let the boy play.”

Harry plays. His coach sticks with him, the orchestra sticks with him, his wife sticks with him and in the end, even the audience sticks with him. It isn’t good. But it is. The story is a love-song to music, the flip side of the cynicism of Shaffer’s Amadeus, in which the bitterness of being only mediocre drives Anton Salieri to murderous scheming against Mozart’s genius. Harry isn’t even mediocre, but the privilege of channeling Mendelssohn, just once, is something for which he’s willing to pay and sweat, and to my patter-singing ex-husband — who had a decent voice and a hammy stage style and soldiered through every performance of his life, even if he went blank and had to fake the lyrics — he was a totem.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” says the epigraph of Targan’s story. I am a perfectionist, and twenty-five years ago the notion was laughable to me. But it has grown on me with time.

Even before Morgenstern had looked at him (and with the first real emotion Harry had seen on that man’s face), Harry had heard the pitch drop on the D string. Only his motor responses formed out of his eighteen years of love carried him through the next three speeding measures as terror exploded in him. He had time to think two things: I know what should be done, and Do it. He did it. It almost worked.

Harry Belten played the worst finale to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto probably ever played with a real orchestra and before the public, any public. But it was still recognizably  the Mendelssohn, it was not too badly out of tune, and if he was missing here and there on the incredibly difficult adjustments to the flatted D string, there were many places where he wasn’t missing at all. Besides Karnovsky, Morgenstern, and Glickman, nobody in the tiny audience in the Coliseum knew what was going on. What they knew was what they heard: to most, sounds which could not help but excite; to the more knowledgeable, a poor performance of a great piece of music. But what Karnovsky knew made him almost weep in his pride and in his joy.

And then, in that wonder-filled conclusion, violin and orchestra welded themselves together in an affirming shout of splendor and success.

You can find a .PDF of the whole story here.


I miss my late and ex-husband most when music is involved, for instance when Brahms turns up on the radio as it just did.

Toward the end, when he was already terminally ill whether or not he knew it, his hygiene didn’t bear description but we could still jam harmony on German student lieder, and the last night he spent in my house — he arrived in a County medic unit, but that’s a whole other story — we had a really maddening round of “guess the composer” after turning on the radio in mid-selection. (It turned out to be Bruckner.)

Brahms’ First Symphony has a weird connotation for me. Don’t ask me why. To me it is the sound of light rising on the gates of a decidedly Protestant heaven, partly gold and partly cloud, the place that the lost people you love are going to arrive at, not you yet, though you get to go slowly, in procession, toward the place where they will leave you, until the gates open. (You know it’s a Protestant, possibly even specifically Lutheran heaven because of that column of solemn organ-chords — 1:29 on the recording below —  before the procession starts.) I’ve heard it this way ever since the first time I didn’t get to say good-bye to someone nearly forty years ago. Having a completely heretical mind (from almost any perspective) doesn’t seem to make any difference to this old image.

The recording that just played on the local classical station was a good deal brisker than this one, especially when the chorale reprised at the end — not enough time to feel the weight of those chords, like someone needed to make a plane or something. Roger Norrington conducting. Figures. I found myself saying out loud: “Ah, Norrington always floors the accelerator.”

I think almost anyone I know would have just looked at me quizzically. Except my former husband. He would have grinned.

He let his teeth fall out and used to pick up bottle caps and things off the street because they looked lonely, and I miss the daft bastard every day.

The Limerick Memorial, Sunday, June 21, 2009: The Machineries of Joy

Machines simulating coitus
Don’t seem very often to fit us.
They’re too large or too small,
And they pummel each ball
While leaving unsightly detritus.

The mechanical sexual device is something of a limerick staple (there is the classic about one which “concave or convex, would fit either sex, with adjustments for those in between”), and my late and ex did not neglect it. Along with the above, he spent some time crafting the rhymes in this one:

A second-hand penile prosthesis
(Which used to be one of Ed Meese’s)
Caused testicle twitching,
Acute anal itching
And also severe enuresis.

As it happens, I have a passion for gadgets, sexual or otherwise. If ingenuity can make life easier or niftier, I want to know all about it, and I regularly found myself in conversations wherein I excitedly began to tell him about —

“A what?” he would say.

“It’s a device — ” I would begin, only to have him interject, “Excelsior!” — recalling Wordsworth’s “banner with the strange device,” carried up into the snowy Alps by a doomed adventurer. Over the years I learned to pause for the ritual intonation.

I don’t miss his mental illness, which defied any glib attempts at categorization (trust me, you haven’t felt homicidal until you’ve heard a parlor shrink try to explain in two minutes and twenty words a situation that you’ve grappled to the point of exhaustion). I don’t miss the heartbreak of wondering where he was or whether he was safe, I don’t miss the exasperation of trying to get him to take the slightest care of himself or even get him into a condition that another person would be willing to sit next to on the subway. But I miss things like “Excelsior.”

His memorial service was two years ago this coming week, within days of what would have been his 77th birthday. The timing is about right, since I’m running out of limericks, unless a cache turns up — the goddamndest things do surface around this house.

The Limerick Memorial, Sunday, May 31, 2009

You cannot separate limericks from crudity. My late and ex, firmly of the pre-silicon generation, added a riff by compounding technology with scatology.  He was both repelled and fascinated by the things that people could do with electronics and acutely sensitive to the way that connectivity allowed people to do better, faster and oftener a lot of things that probably shouldn’t have been done at all.


There was an ambitious young nerd
Who learned how to e-mail a turd
“For,” he said, “as you know,
UPS is too slow,
And to send it FedEx is absurd.”

This pleased him so much that he tried a second riff on it:

A quirky inventor named Prine
Has a way to send feces online.
He says “It’s my vision
To speed up transmission,
But downloading works out just fine.”

In a final ethereal salvo he penned:

There was an inventor named Martz
Whose whim was to fax all his farts.
With his ass greased with Crisco

He sent one to Frisco
After several erroneous starts.

While not one of those males who enjoy breaking wind as a competitive sport, the idea of creative flatulence appealed to the man. I once asked him if he wanted to come along with me to my gym, which is near a quaintly named shopping center, and spend the time while I worked out “farting around Seven Corners.” “I’m not that agile,” he said.

GBT image of Smith's Cloud, which is headed toward a collision with the Milky Way.  Cedit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

The Limerick Memorial, Sunday, May 24, 2009: Military Band Interlude

Along with limericks, my late and ex was a fervent devotee of  good military marches. During the Korean War he wanted to be a signalman, and while stationed at Fort Monmouth NJ he would march off to signal school every day while the post band played. “Colonel Bogey” was a favorite. You all know it: whistled on the soundtrack of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” after a furious struggle with the widow of the composer Kenneth Alford, who tergiversated on granting use rights because “so many people have sung rude words to it.” (“Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” was just the tip of the iceberg, if I dare mix a metaphor.)

One afternoon while we were dating — which consisted of meeting once a week to walk all over friggin’ DC — L&X and I were kicking around an Army version of Colonel Bogey that ran:

Horseshit! It makes the grass grow green!
Horseshit! we use for shaving cream…

My father, who played in the marching bands of WWII, sang it; L&X remembered it. But we couldn’t remember if anyone had ever penned a third line.

Finally, because we were walking near Dupont Circle, which was and is Washington’s gay district and we were both, while fundamentally liberal, politically incorrect, I sang:

Buttfuck! It makes your ass grow green!

To which after some thought he riposted:

Buttfuck! It’s really quite obscene…

But once again we were stuck for a third line, until, remembering the then ubiquitous news stories about the unfortunately named Joey Buttafuoco, he burst into phony Italian crooner dialect:

Buttafuoco! It-a make-a you ass-a grow green-a!
Buttafuoco! It’a really quite-a obscen-a!
Buttafuoco! It-a make-a you loco!
It ain’t no joke-o! don’t poke-o at meee!…

We sang cheerfully for a few more blocks and then, Jurassic Park being a current hit in the theaters, he carolled joyously:

saurs in Jurass-ic Park!
You can
Buttfuck them after dark!
Don’t bore us
With your clitoris!
Just go get your ass
To Jurass
-ic Park!

By now mothers were appearing on porches to take their children inside.

Here comes
Tyrannosaurus Rex!
I think
He might be after sex!
Your rectum
Just might deflect him!
And you’ll infect him
In Jurass-
ic Park.

When he was in the hospital hooked up to a bunch of tubes and things we sang it at least once — he loved to hear me do the crooner version — and, happily, no one asked us to keep it down.

The Limerick Memorial, Sunday April 19, 2009

My oft-mentioned late and ex husband was an aficionado of the limerick, the filthier and more disgusting the better. Ages ago I swore I would collect his limericks, and the apocryphal ones that he treasured, into some sort of a memorial, and toward that endeavor I have decided to post one or two every Sunday.

He had two favorites that were best appreciated by other limerick zealots. The first was a sort of Dirty Mind Barometer:

There was a young lady named Buck
Who had the most terrible luck.
She went out in a punt,
Fell out of the front,
And was bit on the leg by a duck.

For full effect you need to recite this with a grave hesitation at the end of the third and fourth lines.

In a related genre: if you really know your limericks, you will recognize the source of all five of these collated lines (this was his original farrago, and reduced me to tears because I knew every one of them, a common depravity which was one of the reasons I married the man):

There once was a fellow named Dave
Who was raped by an ape in a tree.
But ’twas not the Almighty
Fell into another,
And lightning shot out of his ass.

Two points for every source limerick you can supply in full.

The Return of the Bench

I don’t know if I’m disturbed about this, or disturbed that I am not more disturbed.

I spent the early part of the week beset by two anxieties: that my bank wouldn’t cough up a document critical to a nearly $200K financial instrument, and that the glute-ham bench, a piece of equipment for which there are no substitutes, had been permanently snookered from my gym. I invert myself on this thing daily, usually clutching a 45-pound plate, before throwing every muscle on the back of my body into a dispute with gravity, and the sensation — compounded of spinal therapy and sheer will — is like no other.

Of the two, the financial clusterfuck was easier to face with equanimity.

Fortunately banks delivered and, Wednesday, the bench reappeared — painted, thank Goddess, not the Easter-egg purple and yellow combination beloved of my gym, but a sober black and white. Not that I cared. They could paint it pink as long as they brought it back.

I flung myself on it, kissed it, wedged myself between the pads and seized a sewer-lid plate. A cartaliginous, succulent  sound of decompression issued from my mid-thorax; I paused a moment to savor it before going into full extension with the plate hugged to my chest.

The rest of my life is made bearable by these moments I spend engaged with the romances of pressure and traction, much as I imagine an electron thrives in the moments of  tension between its nucleus and the nearest other electron shell in the vicinity. Dante said that Love moved the sun and the other stars, and probably would have invoked the same cause for the movement of subatomic particles had he known about them.

I love my bench.