In Memory of Alice Neel (1900-1984)


Mural in Spanish Harlem Alice Neel painter
Mural in Spanish Harlem


When Lydia says that all police procedural dramas these days boil down to a policewoman determined to separate her estranged daughter from the older, violent criminal she’s fallen in love with, she means Frank. He’s the bad guy here. He’s with her daughter Pearl now, and though he is older, it is in years only and not by way of any wisdom quotient.

She won’t admit it but Frank suspects that for Lydia all speech is subtext more or less skillfully planted. If she’s not presenting the plot of a prime time television show as a sublimation of her disapproval of his mannerisms, she’s drawing on identity politics to uncenter him. This morning she spoke from across the kitchen island on varieties of invective in Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ and Swift’s ‘Dear John’ as if to question his ability to love a woman artist. When he complains to Pearl that her mother is at it again, she reinterprets the songs as Lydia’s invitation into an intellectual conversation about them. Her main goal in life, after all, is to find one good thing about everyone.

Unconvinced he’s welcome, Frank doesn’t go with Pearl and her mother to the Alice Neel retrospective one Saturday afternoon in August. In their absence, he imagines Pearl alone with Lydia in a crowded entrance, where they don’t speak but look at each other as they move with the others toward the turnstiles. Afterwards, Pearl will tell Frank about the obscure life of Georgie Arce, a boy from Spanish Harlem, who Neel painted at least once in 1953.

If the meaning of the shape holds without Neel here to explain it, a Christlike pose shows Lydia and Pearl a tuberculosis patient dying for the sins of every passerby whose seeing can’t be mistaken. Next, the 1936 painting “Nazis Murder Jews” depicts an anti-Fascist May Day parade in New York City. This is followed by Dachau survivors, German refugees, and a Jewish editor known to the artist and her writer friends. She does many portraits. Some are curators and art historians. Some are new immigrants and others are migrants moving within the national borders and out from places, Pearl speculates, like the Jim Crow South. ‘Sad communities burgeon,’ she whispers in her mother’s ear, ‘the more in the open we visit.’ She’s not sure what she means by this, so they shelve it for the time being.

Lydia remains convinced that one of the more interesting cop shows you’ll find out there explores the ways a policewoman and her daughter work out their love for each other using other relationships as their proxies. This sounds wrong to Frank. “You haven’t watched enough of them,” Lydia explains from across the kitchen island. From the next room over, Pearl searches for the name of the boy seen in the Neel painting. Because his story is one of crime, she’s surprised some upstart producer, cashing in on the art of reenactment, hasn’t turned it into a hit series.

In 1973, among faces of gay liberation, Neel paints the poet Adrienne Rich with whom she argues what’s right feminism. She paints Jackie Curtis who models for Andy Warhol, and Ritta Red, a drag queen. Though the famous may fail in one’s memory, Mother Bloor is here too, and Kenneth Fearing is in an adjacent gallery. Neel paints aspects of the avant garde of her time with the conventionally salaried among them. She does not leave out mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. Though she is known for this kind of work, the word ‘portrait’ makes her squeamish the way words like moist and phlegm make others squirm. But it isn’t bodily for Neel: she calls portraits ‘pictures of people’ because the term ‘portraiture’ belongs to an elite class unlike a billion selfies ever can.

But Neel’s favorite thing to paint is the nude. Who but the freest can imagine sitting naked for Neel before she’s talked them into it? We talk ourselves and others into all sorts of things. Pearl asks, ‘Would you sit nude for Alice Neel, Mother?’ Lydia may not ask the same question back because she’s afraid of the answer. Thus, Neel uses the female form to confront viewers with the physicality of motherhood, as many of her nudes are pregnant.

One day the young Georgie Arce enters the artist’s yard to say, “Ms. Neel, can I play with your boxer?” Of course he can. Anytime he wants. So he and the lady artist become friends, and this simple connection, whether or not Pearl can articulate the oceanic feeling it gives her, reaches into the 21st century. “They met when they had their whole lives ahead of them,” says Pearl “and now they’re gone, and I am alive, Frank.” He can’t resist saying, “Thanks for stating the obvious.”

But her most famous nude is the self-portrait she paints when she is an old woman close to death. With her spine erect and her eyeglasses pushed up to the bridge of her nose, she sits in a tub chair or loveseat holding a paintbrush as if poised to make a mark. She dabs with silver perhaps, if she dabs, as if to touch up her hair gathered at arm’s reach into a bun. She recreates her belly resting in her lap, her breasts resting, and the way she sits, her legs to hide her genitalia. If her skin shows a blueness like flowering bluets beneath, her flesh is mostly pale and loose with some roseate shades and ruddiness to mark not only the worldview of a satisfied woman but also a flushness at the sight of her own body coming into view under her own hand. Alice Neel gives herself her discerning look in perpetuity.

Neel calls Georgie’s intelligence penetrating while helping him to harbor the terrible secret that he is illiterate. With so many students and their needs, how can a teacher focus on a single child? It’s Pearl who focuses now, standing back from him in the gallery. He wears maroon trousers, a light blue jacket, and a white shirt. His ankle boots bespeak dandiness about him, as do bright socks, and though it may not be a pompadour he’s wearing, a tamer version of one adds to the precocity of his look. Pearl calls his gaze discerning like an artist’s, but too grown up, and hates to see any young person acting seductive. But she may be wrong about this. It’s a lot to take from a picture after only a few minutes, and she’s never read body language very well and never faces. But Neel does say somewhere that the boy, early on, absorbed an ethos that makes having money the one true thing for being alive in America. Soon he’s mixing with gangsters in the city and living with them in Attica, and soon Frank is asking from across the kitchen island, “Was it robbery or something?”

Frank has a crime story of his own to tell, known to him as The Story of the Mole. Not the animal or a growth on your skin but a person posing as a cop to burrow with eyes unseen deep into a humane precinct, now everyone must scrutinize everyone to see where the leaks are coming from. Once the mole is identified, one person after another steps forward to ask him why he takes so naturally to the secret infiltration of a community built on trust. To this moral question he replies but not until he’s chosen his words carefully: “I am an outcast based on no evidence except how I feel about myself.” Lydia and Pearl laugh their shared laugh together, so beautiful to see and hear that even Frank laughs.

Later, in bed, amid the regular flow of pillow talk, he tells Pearl she’s beautiful and, predicting his insomnia will last through the night, he apologizes for carrying on so foolishly with Lydia. Because Pearl hadn’t noticed him playing a fool, they collaborate in the defamiliarization of falling asleep as reaching a tipping point into blackness with light at times blowing around like curtains. Tossing and turning and getting up a few times to pace while Pearl sleeps, Frank vows to join her when he’s ready. He takes a step back. They step back together to behold their own bodies, their legs splayed, their heads and sheets jutting in opposite directions, their chests rising and falling. To the sound of their breathing, almost imperceptible, the moon passes through a tall, slender window.

Robert Lax on Patmos (1993-1999) [1]

After Joyce’s “The Dead” Not to be confused with the travel writer who, best known for his writings on Cuba, spelled his middle name with one L, G. Phillip Kramer died one day. I spent years afterwards telling friends he was an etymologist (words) when in fact it was entomology (bugs). Though she never acted on it, my wife was in love with him. She hides her grief now that he’s gone, and I think of him less and less often.


Gilda’s Club


Gilda Radner in 1980 (photo in public domain)



Wandering amid the women in his life, a once-lonely man with a wry sense of humor found love simply by persisting in telling the same dumb jokes over and over again—and listening for laughter. Lifting her veil, he now tried to speak, but found himself speechless in the eyes the wisest comedienne he’d ever witnessed.



American comic Gilda Radner (1946-1989) wore many faces. One she called Roseanne Roseannadanna. She played other characters with names like Brungilda, Emily Litella, Candy Slice, and Judy Miller.

Donning a huge head of tight curls, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was a fake and movingly puerile consumer-affairs reporter on the mock news broadcast on the late-night variety show Saturday Night Live—first airing in the early 1970s.

Brash and tactless, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was quick to savage colleagues and viewers alike—anyone who got in the way of what she was saying—before digressing into something bodily, something scatological, like her own flatulence or the status of one of her nose hairs.

She, Roseanne Roseannadanna, dropped names so that in one moment she was reading a letter from a viewer, usually one Mister Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey, asking about quitting smoking or how breast feeding a baby works in practice, and in the next she was going on about her supposed run-in with Princess Grace of Monaco.

Maniacal, sarcastic, insistent, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, marked my earliest exposure to this kind of playacting. As a form of insistence, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, chronically referred to herself by her full name. Save for the emphatic I, she favored fewer pronouns for herself when speaking about herself, of whom she spoke admiringly.

Though she, Ms. Radner, was a master of sketch comedy, none of the teenagers in my life have ever heard of her. This makes sense. It would be like my reciting from Lucille Ball when I was their age or a teenager forty years hence laughing at the antics of I don’t know who or what in our present moment.

Once Ms. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she famously said, “Having cancer gave me membership In an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” Upon her death, her husband, also a famous comic, helped to found Gilda’s Club, an international organization created to support people living with cancer.

Having sworn off marriage after the death of his wife Gilda Radner, the widower did eventually remarry. Sometime after that—or was it sometime before?—he sought therapy. For what specifically, I don’t know. Loneliness? Anger? Depression? Impulsivity?  He said to his shrink something like, Hey Doc, I have the urge to give away all my money. Well, replied the therapist, how much money do you have? Me? he said, I owe $300.

One day I was walking down Division Street in Nashville when I happened upon a red brick building—home to one the chapters of Gilda’s Club. So read the bronze plaque on the facade on such a bright and muggy day. The parking lot was empty. The windows were dark. Cupping my hands about my face to peer through the glass, I got the sense of a clock ticking. Dust motes. Empty chairs. Dusky silence. A card table stood strewn with magazines. A turntable sat beside a stack of records. Beyond bookshelves, a view to a kitchen and, everywhere, jutting shadows. Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense not so much of time passing as of time having passed—of not so much death as the insignificance of a single life in the context of the sheer number of individuals who have entreated youth to linger—I backed away from the window and, looking around to see if my nosiness had raised eyebrows, I buried my hands in my pockets and, with a down-turned gaze, continued my walk as if nothing had happened.


Cows use horns as sense organs. Horns give cows a sense of their surroundings and metabolisms. A cow without horns can’t feel anything. A hornless cow doesn’t know who a cow is as an entity. Farmers take horns off cows so cows won’t notice cows close by. Cows with horns require a wide berth. Enter the personal space of a cow with horns and see if the cow likes it. Cow is a strong-willed being. Who goes near cow now? If you do, see cow get out of the way of you.   —Dreaming Cow

American cartoonist Gary Larson (b. 1950) drew and wrote The Far Side from 1980, when I was twelve, to 1995, when I was twenty-seven. In 2019, in my fifties now, Larson came out of retirement to publish single-frame, digital comics. Of the animals populating his oeuvre—shark, reindeer, turtle, pigeon, giraffe, orca, viper, peacock, horse, rhinoceros, bear, moose, elephant, ram, dog, woodpecker, pig, canary, alligator, piranha, wolf, cheetah, owl, goldfish, butterfly, spider, duck, tiger, vulture, stork, kangaroo, bull, python, mosquito, gazelle, scorpion, orangutan, zebra, blue whale, octopus, gecko, slug, fawn, eagle, chicken, mole, lobster, squirrel, seagull, anteater, warthog, porcupine, penguin, sheep, polar bear, et al—cows are best.

Humans and cows take up behavioral issues in cow panels. Figures like Farnsworth invite cows over for a drink and now cows are drunk and dancing on the table. A doctor diagnoses Farnsworth with a case of cows at the sight of cows coming out his knee, his elbow, his back, the top of his head, etc. Queuing outside a slaughterhouse without knowing what’s inside, cows complain bitterly when cows cut in line. A cow ding-dong ditches the house of Farnsworth. When he comes to the door, no one’s there but a cow lows on the lawn. Cows bolt upright out of a recurring dream featuring golden arches.

A cow is a ruminant because a cow chews the cud regurgitated from cow rumen. A menagerie of microbes lives in cows’ rumen in service of digestion. Methane gas is a byproduct. Because cows spew it when cows belch and fart, to pass gas is not a euphemism the way other ways of saying it are and have been. I’ve heard it said cows don’t have standup comedians or funeral processions. A ruminant is a contemplative person. A cow sits on a mound in the lotus position instructing a cow to remain present. When traveling life’s highway, Larson writes, ‘always stop and eat the roses.’ To adopt this sense of humor, pretend you’re a cow while going about your daily business. Not even your mother can know what you’re up to. Write down what you see, hear, and do. Describe your interactions with others. Record your feelings. Keep a sacred cow diary.

A Simple Gift I Can’t Give My Father


He announces he’s a step closer to entering the Agent Orange Program and do I know what Agent Orange is? “I do, Dad. I know what Agent Orange is.” “You say you do,” he says, “but do you really?” “Really, Dad. I do.” “But do you really?” “Why would I say I do if I don’t?” “You know the herbicide Agent Orange,” he says. “That’s what you know.” “I assure you, Dad, I know it as the thing you’re thinking of, in the context you’re thinking of it.” “How can you?” “I just can.” “But how?” “I guess I read my history.” “What the history books won’t tell you,” he says, “is that it’s more than an herbicide. It will shock you how much more.” But I won’t be shocked. I won’t allow him to shock me, or even tell me. All my life he’s pushed his definitions on me. Definitions for things everyone knows. Things I could never be so condescending as to define for others. The things I know by heart I must block him from explaining: equinox, stock market, ball bearings, cold front, Chinatowns, spark plugs, asphalt shingles, fish hooks, failure, plaster of paris, place settings, noctilucence, Windsor knot, Rough Riders, acid reflux, grace, Cassiopeia, Whitman, defacto segregation, growing tomatoes, running starts, grounding lenses, catheters, desalinization, comparative advantage, barbecue cooking, yellow journalism, hormones, tumbleweeds, rock formations, layering effects, opportunity costs, detente, prime meridian, hostage negotiations, Appalachian English, a blue whale’s aorta, sororal twins, prophylactics, how not to lose your watch, your wallet, God, defogging headlights, vanishing point, cross country driving, cross country skiing, moon landing, rocket science, inflating a tire, mixing colors, sharpening a knife, polishing your shoes, loving a woman, loved by a woman, holding back, stepping up, eating crow, waltzing, making a lasting impression, making a cappuccino, brain surgery, patience, no grandstanding, grinning, bearing, best foot forward, planning a wedding…. I can never let him tell me what these things are. I can’t even pretend and say, ‘I’ve never heard of Agent Orange, Father. Please tell me.’ I can’t say, ‘I already know what it is, but I would appreciate hearing your perspective.’ Instead I let him go away feeling unheard, with this thing he means to say bottled up inside of him. He is indignant. I feel it, too. We share this same bottledupness. He thinks to himself as I think to myself that one day after he’s dead and gone, I’ll stumble across the golden nugget of information that convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Agent Orange, before its day was done, was far more than an herbicide.






A secret airbase operated by the Central Intelligence Agency sometime between 1959 and 1975 doubled as a town in Laos.


when the first Hmong
arrived in Minnesota


one among them asked
why are there no leaves on trees


only years later did he say
he thought his host was lying


when he responded, winter
instead of admitting


the trees had been sprayed
by low-flying airplanes whizzing over