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)

 

1.

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.

 

2.

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.

Farnsworth

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.

 

 

 

Long-Tieng

 

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