Peter Francis May

Over a Beer

Cue the Tears

So, I used to run a video company. Mostly corporate clients, some broadcast TV, a few ad agencies. Agencies paid well, but I never got along with agency guys. I don’t know, I found them … insincere. And they needed too much attention; people around at all times to admire their creative brilliance.

OK, this is going to sound like a right turn. I was reading about Benjamin Franklin. Inventor. Writer. Entrepreneur. And something of an oddball. So Benjamin Franklin used to strip down naked, recline outdoors and take “air baths.” He wrote that they were salubrious. I had to look that up. Salubrious means healthy.

So I’m directing an edit session with this new agency guy. I’m a little frustrated. He’s talking on the phone, drumming on the desk. Making everything take longer and basically eating up my margin. But he’s bored so he’s looking through this big thick dictionary on the client desk.

I hear him behind me. “Hunh, English is a stupid language. So many useless words. Who even knows what they mean? Like “Insalubrious?”

“Well, salubrious means healthy so insalubrious probably means unhealthy.” Got his attention … for a minute.

He hired us for another gig; a commercial for a big pharmacy chain. I didn’t really like working with him but, like I said, agency money is good and this is when we were young, just trying to get established as a business.

So this guy, let’s call him Dick. And if there’s anyone in the audience named Dick, my apologies. I understand how you feel. My name is Peter.

So our edit session has been going on for about four hours. Haven’t seen Dick. Suddenly, the door bursts open, Dick comes in, goes directly to the garbage, pulls out some food wrappers, empty pop cans, cigarette butts. This back when you could smoke indoors. He lights a cigarette and two seconds later and the pharmacy client walks in and Dick is like, “Let’s cue it up and look at it from the beginning.”

Insincere. Deceitful?

So, next time we work together is a spot for a non-profit. Some dread disease. We’ve got a wife in the studio, talking to her about losing her husband. We’re on a tight shot, it’s very emotional but, she keeping it together. Dick pulls me aside and he’s like, “I need tears.” I don’t want to do that. He takes over and starts pounding this woman with questions. “You ever think about how he’s never gonna see your daughter grow up, get married, have grandkids.” It works. She finally starts crying.

And that was the deal breaker.

Or it should have been. It still bugs me today that I didn’t have the courage to just walk out. But that kind of freedom comes later in your career; when you know who you are and clients know who you are and you’ve got a few bucks in the bank. But the fact is occasionally you’re handed a crap sandwich and you’re going to have to just take a big bite and say, “Mmmmm.”

Well, selling my self-respect didn’t buy us much. We did a couple of more projects with Dick before it ended. As a matter of fact, it ended the worst possible way. He totally exploded the budget on a spot but guess who he blamed it on?

Thanks Dick.

In Tents

So I’m waiting in this long line at customs in Sydney, Australia and there’s an arrow and a sign above it that says, “Carrying Food.” And this sign starts eating at me. They probably mean if you’re packin’ Indonesian lizard sausage or genetically modified kiwis but I’m feeling guilty because I know I have food in my bags because my wife always slips food in my suitcase. You know, “In case.” Anyway, the food line is way shorter than the line I’m in so I move. I get to the front and open my bags. The customs guy digs around and there’s her stash: granola bars, instant oatmeal, Cup o’ Soup, cashews, chocolate. He says, “You know we have food in Australia?”

For years I shot travel documentaries so I was always on the road.The shoots were about three weeks each. Usually a crew of four, doubled up in the hotel rooms. Everything done on the cheap because the less you spend on production, the quicker you go into profit! We got a per diem to feed ourselves. In Denmark it was barely enough for one meal a day. In Greece we ate like kings.

Of course American Culture is overwhelming so there’s always cheap, American Fast Food everywhere. I’ve seen a KFC in the Cotswolds and a McDonalds in the desert in Israel, but for me, I’ll always choose local. It’s tasty and educational!

For example, I’ve learned what Aspic is and what Sweetbreads aren’t. I like octopus, hate sea urchin. Camel, I can take or leave. But I’ll taste it all. That’s why, in Bali I was a bit disappointed when our driver Agung kept taking us to tourist spots. We kept saying, “we want to experience the REAL Bali.” Until he showed us the real Bali. His favorite lunch spot was open air, dirt floor. Pigs and ducks running around. The owner was honored to host us and serves up a big plate of everything he’s cooking. I recognized the rice but, beyond that … Suddenly, everyone else was still full from breakfast. “Couldn’t eat another bite!” Of course I don’t want to insult the owner or Agung so I eat everything. The next day I was sooooo sick. To be fair, it might not have been entirely due to the food. We went straight from lunch to a traditional Balinese funeral; an outdoor cremation, complete with the smells of Kerosene, burning wood and relative roasting away. And it was an especially hot day …

On an especially cold day, we were in Lapland, way above the arctic circle, traveling with the Sami people. They’re reindeer herders. One of them is named Burea and Burea is the spittin’ image of Billy Crystal. I swear, it felt like we were riding through the forest with Billy Crystal pretending to be a laplander. Everything he said was hilarious. At the end of the day Burea insists that we come back to his family’s tent for dinner. It was a step back in time. A glimpse at the traditions of these ancient people. Their tent is just like an American Indian teepee; stitched skins covering wood poles 25 feet tall. Inside reindeer hides are stacked a foot deep all around a big open fire. There’s Burea’s mother, dressed in traditional red and royal blue Sami clothes kneeling next to the fire cooking a big skillet of, what else, reindeer meat. This is Nat Geo all the way.

We say our hellos, get comfortable. Burea looks at me and says, “You seemed to have a good time today. You were laughing all day.” I said, “Burea, we had a good time but it was also … well … it’s just that you look a lot like an American comedian and it’s hard to see you without thinking of the comedian.” He says, “Which comedian?” And I say, assuming he wouldn’t know him, “Well, it’s an American comedian named Billy Crystal.” Burea is quiet, thinking. His mother looks up and says, “You know. From “When Harry Met Sally.”

Making a Bed

My wife Ruth and I had a fight. You’d think I could take on a woman half my size but no, she won this one, even though, technically, she didn’t even know we were having a fight.

See, we recently downsized. From a 4000 square foot house that I loved to a condo that I’m learning to like. It was Ruth’s idea.

Now we live in a place where I can see into every room except the master bathroom standing at the kitchen sink. And when you downsize, you’re not just giving up space, you’re giving up everything that fit in that space. That was traumatic. And 1200 square feet, that’s traumatic too. In 4000 square feet, you can always find someplace to claim, someplace to get away. I can have my space and Ruth can have her space; her cluttered, disorganized, messy space

Ruth and I are different. Nothing gets to her and everything gets to me. I mean, I can only look at the crumbs and stains and that dessicated carrot sitting on the bottom of the refrigerator for so long and then I snap. I pull out all the food, disassemble the shelves and scrub it down. Even if we’re late for work.

In this smaller space I see every mess and it’s amplified in my mind. We talked about it before moving. We knew it was going to be a trigger for me.
But we didn’t actually assign tasks or anything. I thought we’d just kinda fall into the jobs. So when we moved the first task I adopted was making the bed. It started as an art project. All new bedding, pillows – ten of them arranged just so. Very stylish, very inviting. Weeks pass and I’m making the bed every morning. After a while I said, “Seems like I’m the one who makes OUR bed.” She says, “Yeah.” And finally I just ask, “Why is it that you never make the bed?” She says, “Oh, you’re so much better at it than me!”

So I keep making the bed and feeling used until one day I’m spoilin’ for a fight so I decide to make a powerful statement. So I didn’t make the bed. If she wants it made, she can make it. I’ll wait.

Day 1, there it sits unmade. Day 2, still a mess. Now, I think I indicated, I’m a little OCD so, just imagine the strength it took me to not jump in on Day 1 and make the bed. And I didn’t not make the bed for one day. I didn’t make it for two days! Even though it haunted me and taunted me every minute.

Day 3, I can’t stand it. I’m in full on battle mode. Standing by the bed shaking my head. Making snarky comments,“I hope no one stops by. I’d hate for our friends to see how we live.” Looking at the bed and heaving sighs. I get quiet for awhile and she touched me and said, “Is something wrong?” I want to yell, “Hell yes! The bed hasn’t been made for three days! Doesn’t that bother you?” But instead I said, “No, nothing’s wrong.” Because there was nothing wrong.

I keep saying that nothing bothers her but that’s not true. Me being sad or angry or upset, that bothers her. And here I was pretending to be upset and angry to make a point. Hurting her on purpose. It just shows how petty and juvenile I can be. And what an inept communicator … but she still loves me. And I still love her. She won. My surrender was complete and unconditional. Even though it was almost bedtime, I went in and made the bed. And now I’m back to making it every day because, what’s ten minutes a day to do something nice for us in our new house? Besides, I am way better at it than she is.

McDonald’s Girl

I’m a romantic. One reason is I’m also a late bloomer. By high school, when all the other guys had muscles and mustaches, I was still rockin’ the baby fat. Never had one date in high school. So, I spent my Saturday nights watching romantic movies, writing poems and listening to love songs.

I really didn’t start getting taller and hairier until I was a sophomore in college. That’s when I started dating.

Back then at UW-Madison there was a McDonald’s on Lake Street near Memorial Library. I love McDonald’s! Probably one of the reasons why I was a chubby little kid. Anyway, that’s where I first saw Rachel; behind the counter, dark hair, dark eyes, perfect. I decided I had to ask her out on a date.

OK, being a romantic, I wasn’t going to just ask her out. I needed to soften her up first. Sometimes humor works. So I wait in line, when I reach the counter she says, “May I help you?” “Yes, my doctor said I’m not getting enough cholesterol. What would you suggest.” Her laugh was music to me. Everyday that week I ate lunch at McDonalds and got a laugh out of her. I thought I was making some headway and then the most amazing thing happened.

I mentioned Rachel to my friend Joyce and she said, “I know Rachel! We were roommates last semester!”

I peppered Joyce with questions about her. Learned a bunch of stuff. Next day at McDonald’s I ask for my order to go. I’m heading to up to Sturgeon Bay because I’ve heard all the most beautiful women in Wisconsin are from Sturgeon Bay. Rachel says, “That’s where I’m from!” I said, “Huh, then what I heard is true!” Points!

For the next week I came in every day and dropped another little hint, some intriguing bit of trivia Joyce had shared. Nothing more than you’d know from looking at someone’s Facebook profile nowadays but intriguing back then. I actually figured that by this time she realized we had friends in common. Maybe even Joyce, but I kinda hoped she didn’t since I was enjoying my role as the mysterious, romantic cavalier.

I see Joyce and tell her, “Tomorrow I’m going to ask Rachel out.” Joyce said, “So you’re going to see Rachel?” (I didn’t tell her I was seeing Rachel every day.) “Do me a favor? Return this book for me.” I look at the book and see Joyce had been using a picture of her and Rachel and their other roommates as a bookmark! This is perfect! Can I borrow this until tomorrow?
So, the next day I got to the counter, ready to ask her out, I set the book down with the picture poking out enough for her to see and looked up at the menu. I saw her look down at the book. “You know what I really want today? You know what would make me very happy?” I looked down at her, she looked up at me, our eyes met and she said … “Why are you doing this to me? Leave me alone.” I felt the heat in my cheeks and ears. “Just leave me alone!” And I did. I ran.

Maybe you saw that coming. I didn’t. But outside it all became clear. I saw myself as the mysterious paramour, she saw a stalker. I didn’t intrigue her, I scared her! She wasn’t looking for me in her yearbook; she was looking over her shoulder to make sure I wasn’t following her. Ooops.

There’s no happy ending here. About a week later Joyce told me that she talked to Rachel and told her I was just a big, stupid, harmless guy. Still, as much as I love McDonalds, I resisted and stayed on the Engineering campus for the rest of the semester.

Navigation by Defacation

Military rule ended in 1979. By 1982 they had a new constitution. In 1986, the people of Honduras were ready to elect a new president. I was there shooting news and it was an exhilarating time in this new democracy! I can remember driving in from the airport and being amazed that every building, large and small, flew a flag for their candidate; red for the Liberals, blue for the Nationals. Their voter turnout in ‘86 was 87%, just like in America! Just kidding. Actually our voter turnout was 36.4% that year.

Despite progress in politics, Honduras remained a poor county with poor infrastructure. In Tegucigalpa, “Tegu,” the capital, a million residents suffered with bad roads, intermittent power, questionable water and one disorienting infrastructure issue for visitors: Tegu had no street signs! Really. A million people and no street signs.

On our last afternoon in Tegu my reporter Greg and I decided to visit the Mercado Central; the sprawling open-air market downtown. Even without street signs it wasn’t difficult to find. What was difficult to find was a place to park! It was so crazy. Cars, carts and trucks blocked every street, alley and sidewalk. So we started circling and after a few arbitrary turns we got lucky, found a spot for the rental and wedged it in. As soon as I got out of the car a little boy, maybe four years old, runs out into the street, stops maybe six feet to my right, drops his drawers, squats down and proceeds to … delicately put; pinch a loaf? Right in the middle of the street! An epic turd. Gigantic! Greg and I laughed – it was kinda funny and very third worldy. No offense to the third world or Honduras. I mean, I don’t want to imply that people all over Tegu were crapping in the streets. This seemed to be a one off. Coulda happened in America I thought, given the right combination of plumbing problems and a child’s unbridled sense of personal freedom. Anyway, moving on …

The closer we got to the mercado, the denser the crowds became. The market was a jumble of streets connected by alleys and covered arcades. Stalls packed every square inch selling everything from ancho chilies to zapatos. Toys, tools. There were musicians and dancers. Colorful clothes on crowded hangers. Buyers and sellers bargaining and bickering. Children hawked roasted corn in charred husks … by the way – delicious! Flies buzzed around butchers and fish, pyramids of fruits and vegetables, bootleg cassettes blared over tinny speakers.

Now, I never get lost. Greg? He could get lost in a porta-potty. So, it was always my job to remember where we parked the car. Well, I either overestimated my sense of direction or under-estimated how dizzying this old market could be! Either way, when we were ready to leave, I was completely spun around. I had no idea which way to go. Nothing looked familiar and we’d made too many turns to retrace our steps.

All we could do was like establish a grid, wander around, look for landmarks and try to stay calm. “I can’t believe you lost the car!” Greg was never good at “Calm.” “Yeah, maybe I should have written down the name of the street but there are no street signs!” It was getting late and we were getting agitated until finally, luckily, completely by chance, I got my bearings. I spotted an unforgettable landmark that led me straight to the car. A epic, gigantic brown landmark right in the middle of the street.

On the Road Again

So, I’m at my dentist’s, sitting in the chair. He’s not there yet but his assistant is buzzing around the room prepping; young lady, mid 20’s, in scrubs, very professional, very focused. Just the two of us so I did what I always do, start talking, asking her questions. She’s kinda quiet at first but she opens up. I learn that her name is Maria, she’s a young mother, two kids, from a big family, very tight-knit family but most don’t live around here. Her sister, who she’s closest with, lives in Texas. Also a young mother. They’re driving down to Texas in July to visit.

My wife has a sister down in Texas and I know it’s hard for her, not being able to see her sister more often. So, I said, “It must be difficult living so far apart.” And she said yeah but “We live in an apartment right on the interstate and my sister does too. So, it’s like we live on the same street!” And I thought, “Maria is an optimist. She looks on the bright side.”

Because that’s what you do, right? Listen to people, learn about them and begin to paint a picture. Fill in the blanks. So the picture I’m painting is a young family. Just starting out. They live in an apartment right on the interstate because that’s cheap real estate. They can’t afford the suburbs yet. And they’re driving down to Texas for the only reason any sane person would drive to Texas in July; because they can’t afford to fly.

I can relate, right. When we were young my parents didn’t have any money so vacation meant packing all six of us and the dog in the car and doing crazy long drives. New York to Florida. 27 hours non-stop, eating PB&J sandwiches my mother packed. Dad’s not stopping unless at least three of us have to pee. So I commiserate. “Texas in July. It’s going to be a long, hot, sticky drive. Are you dreading it?”

That flipped Maria’s switch. She is looking forward to this ride like it’s “Space Mountain!” She loves highways! She finds the sounds of passing cars comforting. That’s why she lives on the interstate! She tells me that when she was a child her family lived in their car – not like, “We practically LIVED in our car!” No, they literally lived in their car – driving around so her father and mother could find farm work. But the way she remembers the long drives are hours spent together; playing games, talking, reading, singing, looking out the window. She tells me that they’d sleep at rest areas. In the winter, when they had money for gas they’d run the car to keep warm. When they didn’t, they’d split up, boys and girls, all wrapped in blankets and they’d sleep in the rest area bathrooms. I’m listening speechless. Y’know? That story took an unexpected turn.

The dentist came in and that was the end of our conversation. Haven’t seem Maria since but, this is like two years later; I still think about her and I feel the emotion behind the simple facts of her story. Sadness for the vulnerable little girl sleeping in a public restroom. Respect for what her family accomplished. Happiness for grown up Maria and her sister down in Texas. And a renewed commitment to connect; to ask questions and enjoy the answers.


I love pugs. Little bug-eyed, wheezy dogs that are so ugly they’re cute. And I remember the first day I started loving pugs.

In the summer of 1966 I was 12 and had a pretty solid business cutting grass. $4 per lawn. I’d ride my bike from job to job dragging this lawnmower.

Anyway, my parents were helping me out telling everyone I was cutting lawns so, I was excited but not too surprised when my mom told me that I got a call from a librarian at the public library. This was the big time.

Now I know that library lawn. It’s ten times bigger than my regular gigs. I’m thinking $40 … a week! That makes me a man of means! That’s a new mitt and, if I save up, a new bike … with a banana seat!

I camp out by the phone and sure enough, the librarian, Miss Reynolds, calls back. She wants the mowing done Saturday morning and gave me the address. Funny, I had never thought of the public library having an address. Everybody knows whe … wait. Oh no. It wasn’t the public library but Miss Reynolds’ house. Another four-buck gig, maybe $4.50 with the disappointment surcharge.

And it was a difficult job too. The back was totally overgrown; so I had to like tilt the mower up, move forward one foot, lower it on the weeds and it almost stalled every time.

OK, this has almost nothing to do with the story but one of those cuts where I lowered the lawnmower, I pulled it away I was horrified to see a box turtle. And it was bleeding! I’d hurt a turtle! The blade just nipped the top of her shell. So I took a Band-Aid I had on my knee and put it on the turtle’s back. And she recovered. I know because every time I mowed Miss Reynold’s lawn that summer, and believe me, I mowed it as often as she’d let me, I saw my turtle still wearing my Band-Aid.

Anyway, it was grueling work and I was happy to take a break when I saw Miss Reynolds motioning to me from her back porch.

Now Miss Reynolds had a pug named Bebe. I sit down on the top porch step and Bebe is bouncing around and nuzzling me and I’m petting her and looking at Miss Reynolds and realizing that this is not “weekday” Miss Reynolds the librarian any more. This is now “weekend” Miss Reynolds. Miss Reynolds the hippie chick; hair down, barefoot, cutoffs and a peasant blouse.
OK, if you’ve never been a 12-year-old boy … there are priorities. Bikes, baseball, ice cream and, right up there, if possible, seeing a naked girl.

So Miss Reynolds is bending over to hand me a soda. I take it and say, “Thank y–o–u!” Gravity has taken control of my gaze and her blouse and as my eyes drop I realized her girls were right there in front of me. I-R-L !

The universe had given me a gift. Awarded me first base.

Miss Reynolds and I held that pose for an eternity, like a perverse Norman Rockwell painting! Her smiling, me holding a cold soda in one hand and the other petting her happy little pug like I was shining my Sunday shoes.

And I still love pugs … and turtles … and my wife … who has a degree in library science.

Riding Abbey Road

In 1969 I was in 11th grade at East Islip High School in East Islip, Long Island, New York.

And, as usual, I was the new kid.

See, my father lobbed resumes around the country like a guy firing the t-shirt cannon at a Bucks game. Then, every time he landed a better job, we’d get our marching orders. “Pack your stuff. We’re moving.”

Between 3rd grade and my senior year in high school – 9 years – I went to nine schools.

So, in East Islip High school, like all my other schools, I spent a lot of time on the outside looking in. I’d hear classmates talk about the parties, the dances and the bonfires I missed. And I’m not blaming anyone. Why would they invite me? I was a blip. In and out of the schools before anyone noticed.

But there’s a bright side to moving around. My family is very close; you know ‘cause half the time we were the only people we knew! 1 We saw a lot of the county. Learned some useful life skills like how to make friends fast. Junior year it was Tim, Steve, Kendall, Lucy, Marci and Toby; Toby Berkowitz. I always liked that name; Toby. Toby and I were both in chorus. We found each other online a few years ago and still stay in touch. The internet has been great for people like me who thought we didn’t have any roots.

Oh and that year, Junior year, I had the absolute coolest part time job. I worked in a factory where we did contract work pressing vinyl records. I worked in quality control. My job was to sit in a soundproof room with a set of headphones, crank the music and listen for defects in the records! OK, it was kinda lame when we were duplicating Dean Franconi’s Romantic Strings but pretty cool when we were pressing Steppenwolf or Three Dog Night.

And you might say, “Peter! How do you get a great job like that?” And I’d say, “Hey, don’t ask me, ask my father! He ran the place.”

He did something else nice for me that spring.

The factory landed a contract with Apple Records and my father brought home a box of 50 copies of the album Abbey Road by the Beatles four months before it was released! He said, “Here, you can share these with your friends.” That was a moment for celebration! 50 copies of a brand new, unreleased Beatles album was enough coin to buy me some serious attention at school. I handed a copy of Abbey Road to every one of my friends and still had 43 copies left over. I gave one to my drafting teacher. To Annette in chemistry who always smiled at me. 3 I gave one to every person who’d ever been nice to me and everyone I hoped would be nice to me Senior year.

In April of 1969, I was probably the most popular kid in my school.

Sadly, I was a one hit wonder. I didn’t have a followup album. And, about the time I ran out of my copies of Abbey Road, we got our marching orders again, “Pack your stuff, we’re moving.” I was off to be the new kid in Sumter, South Carolina.

But, I left Long Island pretty sure that there were 50 people who’d remember me every time they thought about Abbey Road.

That’s what I asked Toby. I DM’d her last week and said, “What do you remember most about me in Junior year?” She said she remembers me as a “sweet kid with a good sense of humor.” 4 “No, Abbey Road!” “The Beatles album?” Yeah, the Beatles album! I worked in the record factory. Gave you a copy of Abbey Road like four months before it was released to the public!”
Nothing. She didn’t remember a thing about it.

Which I guess says a little something about “buying” attention. She remembers me for me; but not for giving her a Beatles album!

Clearly, I should have given Toby’s copy to someone else!

Rocks in My Head

n the south side, when you want to get rid of something that’s too good to toss but not worth selling you put it at the curb. You don’t need a sign. It’s understood; on the curb – free for the taking. Out there by dusk, gone by morning.

One morning on the way to work I drove past six large rocks on the side of the road; neatly spaced, smallest to largest, right along the curb, free for the taking. And, coincidentally, I’ve got the perfect place in my yard for a rock garden. All its missing is rocks.

So, one Saturday night, after SNL and most of a bottle of Cabernet, I remembered the rocks. I hopped in my station wagon and drove the half mile to this house with the intention of grabbing all six.

Now, I’m smarter today than I was that night. For example, now I know how to recognize granite. Now I know that granite weighs 208 pounds per cubic foot. From that fact I’ve been able to calculate that the smallest of my rocks weighs about 300 pounds. The largest, around 450. Well within my deadlift capabilities … 40 years ago. If I’d learned all this before that night, I could have saved myself some time, trouble and what now seems to be a permanent elbow injury. Though I wouldn’t have those sweet, sweet rocks.

So, unencumbered by facts and sober thought, I attacked rock number one. I managed to lift it, turn and step twice to the back of my wagon and drop it. Rock number two I was feeling the strain, sweating and questioning my sanity. Rock number three, I’m sober again, my legs are shaking, my grip is weakening and stubbornness is all I’ve got left. That’s when I felt the pop in my elbow. That should have stopped me but no, it was rock four that stopped me. I could get it off the ground but I couldn’t stand up. I think it was the 40 years. So, I decided, it’s only a half mile to my house and I own a hand truck … OK, maybe I was still a little drunk.

1AM, curbside again, I’m ready. I decide to tilt the hand truck so the blade is resting on the top of the curb and the handle is leaning back. I’ll just roll the rock onto the blade. I come around to the front of the hand truck and begin lifting. I’m just guessing what happened next; the rock rolled, hit the blade, stood up the hand truck and, well … has anyone ever been hit on the top of the head really hard? Stars? Lights dimming? I’m suddenly standing there wondering if I’m going to fall backwards into the grass or face first into Grange Avenue.

Again, thanks to shear stubbornness, I regained my wits and continued. Now I’ve got a rock on the blade of the hand truck but not far enough on that I can lift it over center. I’m able to get it off the ground thanks to leverage and my girth but with all my force directed down, there’s nothing left to move me forward. Finally I managed to work out a sort of rocking movement (no pun intended) that allowed me to lean forward a short distance and then catch the rock before it stood the hand truck up … all the time in serious danger of involving my genitals in this adventure.

Sunday morning I slept in. Until my wife woke me up to find out why there were rocks in the driveway. I explained about the rock garden and about “free for the taking” and she nodded and listened and then asked, “What if those rocks had just been delivered?” Like maybe that’s why they were neatly lined up along the curb.

Great. Now I’m haunted by lingering doubt. For a year I drove by every day, hoping to see someone in the yard, wondering if I should stop and ask. One day I got my chance and took it. Turns out the former owners had put them there but when this lady moved in she’d decided to build a rock garden but, before she could, I stole the rocks. I apologized and offered to return them but she said no. She told me the two remaining would be enough and she’d have her son move them into the back yard.

About eight months ago I noticed that one of the rocks was gone. I don’t know if some other neighborhood thief thought, “Hey, rocks! Free for the taking,” or maybe her son found out how much granite weighs.

The Death of an Artist

As soon as the Sunday paper showed up, I’d grab the comics, some pencils and my big pad of newsprint and lay belly down on the living room carpet. I like to read the funnies but, more than that, I liked to copy them. I loved to draw the characters and I was pretty good at it. I did a Snoopy Charles Schultz would love. I excelled at Beetle Bailey. I could produce a near perfect Wizard of ID and on a good day, a passable Prince Valiant. Stepping back, admiring my efforts, comparing my copies to the originals, it was pretty clear to me that I had a gift. So, whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say, “An artist!”

In third grade I was made the art editor of our class yearbook. Actually, I shared that honor with a kid named Fred Mosher. I liked Fred. He was funny and creative, but very effeminate so he got picked on a lot. But I was the new kid so I got picked on a lot too. I can’t say we suffered for our art but we suffered nonetheless.

There were a lot of little illustrations to do for the yearbook; butterflies near the 3rd Grade poetry and sports equipment next to the track and field records. Fred and I cooperated on all those jobs, splitting the workload evenly. But, when it came to the big prize, we were competitors. Whoever got the cover would see their artistic endeavor in all its 8 1/2 by 11 glory mimeographed on pale blue paper!

Fred and I both submitted drawings for the cover of the yearbook. His won.

I chose a spooky, full moon Halloween scene with some of the Peanuts characters, in costumes, just as they’d looked in the Sunday Comic spread. I placed the characters on the left walking right and the characters on the right walking left giving the impression that they were marching toward a big leafless tree; the unexplained center of attention.

Trees are an easy early subject for young artists. They’re as easy to draw as the sun. They can be detailed or just a squiggled lollypoppish blob of green atop a brown stick.

Fred Mosher’s drawing also featured a dominant central tree but his hadn’t lost all its leaves. There was a mix of bare branches and leaves still clinging, some were lightly shaded, some darker, giving the impression of fall colors. Beneath the tree was a nicely rendered cartoon bear raking the leaves that had fallen.

It’s true that both our drawings featured trees but his tree was better. Both our drawings had action but his was motivated. And his drawing seemed to have the maturity of a 6th Grader’s work. I realized Fred Mosher was a better artist than me. My father did too.

I suppose that at some age everything your kid does is just amazing. You show relatives and brag to co-workers. But that blind and boundless acclaim fades as reality muscles in. I think he was just protecting me from the cold, cruel world I would ultimately be forced to face, but from that yearbook on, when I said that I wanted to be an artist, my father would say, “You don’t want to be an artist. Artists don’t make any money. It’s too competitive.” The subtext being, in competition so far it’s Fred Mosher: 1, Hometeam: 0.

Dad was too honest to spread the “You can be whatever you want to be!” lie. He’d say, “You ever wonder why you hear the expression ‘starving artist?’ You want to freeze in some garret?” That became a family joke. When we looked at new houses the question was, “Does it have a garret for Peter?”

Dad had a much better idea. “You want to be an engineer, they make good money.” he’d say. “You can draw after work,” he’d add to soften the crushing of my dream, unwittingly setting up a left brain/right brain conflict that has buffeted me all my life.

All through high school and then through college, even though I was on a path toward becoming an engineer, whenever the opportunity came for me to do artwork, I’d grab it. Posters, flyers, newspaper ads, anything. And ultimately, I did sort of figure out a way to synthesize engineering and art. I became an industrial designer. It was mechanical drawing but that was still drawing.

I worked in a design studio in Madison where one of the guys taught me how to do renderings; sketches of product designs colored with markers. I loved sitting at the desk with this monster rainbow of Design Markers; like a massive box of Crayolas for grownups. I took every opportunity to grab some velum and sketch away. Dave, my boss, would look at my renderings and say, “Hmmm. Yeah, I see where you were trying to go here.” Because, the fact remained, though I liked the idea of being an artist and being artistic, I didn’t have that really natural talent. Maybe just a little. I mean, in my brutal, personal assessment of my own talent, I decided I was better than like 75% of the population. I spend my time at art fairs going, “OK, I could do better than that!” and “Whoa, I could never do that!”

But it wasn’t like I tried. I didn’t spend late nights hunched over my easel, refining my strokes. As a matter of fact, over the years, I came to realize that it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to have painted. I wanted people to look at a painting I had done and go wow! But, I wasn’t committed to art. I wasn’t committed to the lengthy, tedious process.

Despite all that, I did sell one pen and ink drawing at a very opportune moment in my life.

When I was down at Clemson, I went out with a woman named Rebecca. One Fourth of July she invited me to go camping with her family in their big RV at Mt. Pisgah up in the Blue Ridge mountains. At that time I wasn’t really clear how mountains worked. Even though it was mid-July in South Carolina, it was remarkably cold in the mountains! I did not pack for the cold and shivered my way through most of the trip.

Being there with her parents, the only time we had alone was when we went hiking. She’d tell them that I wanted to do some sketching and we’d head out on the trails, me with a bag full of pencils, paper and ink.

Anyway, we were out in the woods and I saw this little stand of birch trees, the light was just right, so I decided to sketch them. I did a passable job. I’d give myself a grade of 75.

Rebecca was admiring the sketch and said, you should sign it. I wasn’t in the habit of signing sketches but I did. I whipped out a quick Peter May.

Now, if you don’t know your art history, you might not be aware of the famous, influential creator of 1960’s psychedelic pop art, Peter Max.

Peter May. Peter Max. Pretty close, right? Even closer when one does a sloppy job on my “Y” and it comes out looking like an “X.”

I went back to putting some final touches on my sketch when a couple came up the trail. They stopped next to Rebecca and watched me for a minute, admiring my drawing. Rebecca heard one of them say, “That’s Peter Max!” She did not correct them. As a matter of fact, she gave them a little “just between the three of us” nod.

Anyway, that afternoon, a very happy couple walked away with a signed pen and ink of a lovely stand of birches by one Peter Max. I walked away with $20 which was enough to buy a nice, warm sweatshirt.

We Need a Hero

I had two stories tonight. One makes me look like a jerk. The other makes me look like a hero. I was going to let you decide which one you wanted to hear but I couldn’t bare the thought of a room full of people yelling “Jerk!” “Jerk!” So here’s a little hero story.

UW-Madison, mid 70’s, Lakeshore dorms, snowy winter evening. I’m in a really crappy mood after another fight with my new roommate who, because he was a total nutbag, had locked me out of my room for the third time in our first week together but that’s another story. I wanted a hamburger, an angry, fatty hamburger. I take the long way into the cafeteria because out front there are a dozen guys having a very roudy snowball fight and I don’t want to deal with their sophomoric crap. Inside I get my hamburger and sit down. Across from me, is a woman I’d seen many times in the cafeteria. She’s sitting alone too.

Anyway, suddenly, the outdoor snowball fight comes indoors. Three guys laughing and heaving snowballs left and right. One snowball hits this woman square in the face. Her glasses fly off, her soda spills, her meal is ruined and, like I said, I was already in a foul mood and I snapped.

I ran toward the three guys. They’re still laughing and running around.
I was kinda big and heavy even back then. Sort of a “Baby Huey” shape. I made contact with the first guy at a full sprint and the impact sent him flying, his back hit the wall and his feet shot straight out and he fell to the floor on his ass.

The second guy, went to run around me. I spun around and kinda redirected him headfirst into a big, gray garbage pail so just his feet were sticking out. At that point the third guy and I are standing about one foot apart. I was just tripping on adrenaline and I was not coherent, I think I just screamed. Ahhhhhhhhhh! He ran for the door followed by the other guy. The whole incident was over in less than thirty seconds.

There was a smattering of applause and some cheers. I walked back to my table shaking. I was going to see if the woman sitting across from me was alright but she was gone. Right away this other guy comes up and he was like, “Man, I was going to come help you but you didn’t look like you needed any help!” And I believed him because I choose to believe that everyone wants to help. Sometimes they just need a catalyst. After that two women walked over and thanked me but that was it. Pretty much over. Everyone went back to their meals.

That’s when I started thinking about the walk back to the dorm and wondering whether these guys would be waiting outside for me. The cafeteria was on a second level and you had to walk down a flight of stairs to the glass doors. Outside there were six of them and one of me. Do the math. Well, another thing about my bad moods. Not only do I get stupid, I can get suicidal.

I burst through the doors and walked right into their circle and I stood for five seconds looking around. Five seconds can seem like a very long time. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one thousand. Thinking back I probably looked crazy as hell. I might even have been counting out loud. Bottom line, none of them made a move so I just kept walking.

I’ll admit, I might not have jumped into action for all the right reasons but I believe I did the right thing and here, forty years later, I’m still kinda proud that I stood up.