Visions of Picasso and the Cat who Trapped a Bird

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The tour guide took one last headcount before we departed that morning. There was a light Mediterranean breeze as our guide, Dave was discussing the itinerary before heading out the gate past the borders of the Spanish military installation. Our destination was the Andalusian city of Malaga. The birthplace of Pablo Picasso along with a host of other historical sites. My main agenda for this trip was to write a feature story for the base newspaper on the Picasso Birthplace Museum, where many of the works on display were curated from his families private collection.

The day turned out to be a kind of personal discovery. Picasso always fascinated me from a distance. I’d imagined what his work was like, but never had the opportunity to see it up close. I wondered if I really knew what his artwork looked like or if it was someone else’s paintings I had seen in books and magazines. For my feature story, particularly since it was the museum of his birthplace, I wanted to get to the root of what his art was all about. It wasn’t until that afternoon when our tour bus split off into groups that I would get the chance to peer inside his odd, exquisite world.

As we entered the central downtown area, I looked out over an array of buildings with their ancient stone structures. Dave, our guide began to talk over a loudspeaker about the city’s tumultuous history during the Spanish Civil War and the reconstruction that had occurred there over the past few centuries. Like many cities in Spain, there is proof of the Moorish occupation everywhere. Much of the architecture remained in tact as various old castles rose overhead near the town square. The Moorish Alcazaba fortress, dating back to 1065, which featured an archeological museum was also another point of interest on the itinerary that day

As the passengers rushed off the bus, there was Dave, left all by himself. I sensed that he was going to be the only other one with any interest in the Picasso museum. All along the way he and I had sparked up a conversation about many things. He was like an aging hipster, which I didn’t mind, but it did annoy the other passengers when he’d get on the loudspeaker and ramble on about strange pop culture references. I can’t recall exactly what kind of awkwardness he displayed, only that he reminded me a bit of Jerry Garcia’s long distant cousin. I had a feeling it was going to be a long strange trip that day.

So Dave and I decided to hit the town together. We had approximately seven hours to be back in time so that the bus wouldn’t leave us stranded. By then, it was mid afternoon, plenty of time for a drink at one of the outside bars. There were bars and cafes lined up and down the main drag with small red plastic tables and covered awnings. Old cobblestoned streets went in every direction with the faint pleasant smell of Spanish tapas and fresh locally baked bread. We sat at a bar near a large cathedral on one of the plastic red tables. The view overlooked a city that appeared as if it stood frozen during the time of the Moors.

As Dave and I had our first beer, he explained that the lack of progress in many Spanish cities had been due to the harsh dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco had ruled the country after the Spanish Civil War had ended in 1939. From that point until his death in 1975, he left much of the people of Spain and their communities in economic despair. ” El Caudillo (The Leader) as he became to be known, instilled a lot of terror during his reign. He managed to brainwash the entire country through controlled media as well as a state education system,” Dave said. Even though Franco’s dictatorship was traded for Democracy after his death, the effects of his regime could be felt in all facets of life. Remnants during the time of that regime were housed in the museum we were headed for that day among the many works of Picasso. The final exhibit was a photography exhibition that collected various photographers who captured the atrocities of life under his dictatorship.

It would be to my own horror and disgust seeing the terrified faces being displaced in all their stark black and white imagery; elderly women and starving children looking back with expressionless stares. Much of the photography reminded me of earlier adolescent visions of looking through high school textbooks about the aftermath of holocaust survivors.

After a few beers and an ongoing discussion about the Tyranny of Franco, we passed by the Iglesia De Santiago, a beautiful baroque cathedral founded in 1490. It’s notable as holding the official birth certificate of Picasso and the church where he was baptized. As we drew closer to the museum, I noticed a huge procession down the street. It looked like a happy couple getting married at another church which was not too far from the museum’s entrance. A long line of well dressed people waited outside to enter. In the distance we heard the sound of a large cathedral pipe organ playing church wedding music.

As we approached the entranceway to the museum, a security guard had us place our camera and bags on a counter. No photos were allowed. The museum was privately owned by the daughter-in-law and grandson Christine and Bernard Ruiz Picasso, whose private donations constituted most of the collection. As we entered the main gallery I looked down at the brochure that was handed to us at the front counter explaining the entire museums contents. It was broken into sections of interest rather than specific time periods. Picasso’s take on the classics in one area, overlapping perspectives in Cubism in another room, ceramics re-workings of the Old Masters, to his late paintings of the 1970s. The temporary black and white photography exhibit of Franco era portraits were housed at the end of the exhibit.

Dave and I broke off for awhile so we could focus on any area of the museum we wanted. After walking around for about an hour mesmerized by most of what I was witnessing, I stumbled upon a particular piece that stood out among the rest. Sure, there were the signature nudes, the elongated shapes and doorways that led possibly into another dimension. The Cubism and abstracts that Picasso was mostly known for. But there was a painting of a cat that stood solitary in one corner of the room, as if it had been thrown in the exhibit at the last minute. It really stuck out and nobody else seemed to notice or care that it was there up on the wall. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The penetrating stare of the cats eyes as its mouth clutched a bird, it’s skin and feathers being ripped apart. There was something different about what Picasso was trying to say with this particular painting from the rest of what was in the collection. I walked up to have a closer look, seeing the title on the frame reading, “Cat Trapping a Bird.”
I later learned from one of the museum curators that it was on loan from the Paris museum. I located Dave and we headed toward the photography exhibit, still enthralled by the entire experience. In the exhibit, the black and white images on display centered on the Franco era as his reign came to an end. There were names and faces of unknown souls living in the poorest of conditions spread out through several rooms. A Portrait of a woman crying out in the street caught my attention. All of her wrinkles showing the struggles of a hard life blended in with the background, a place that looked eerily familiar. A resemblance of a not too distant future. Instead of old cobblestoned streets it looked like the back alleys of anywhere in America.

As I peered further into the portrait memories of the evening news during an election season came into stark contrast. It wouldn’t be too far into the near future when I returned that America would be a place as unwelcoming and more foreign than any other country I had ever lived. An expatriate heart looking at American society from the outside and not seeing much in the way of any progress. Just talk of building walls around itself, growing isolated from the rest of the world and more out of touch. That image really never left me and now its my constant reminder. That good times come around again, even if a society goes through hell and back in order to not repeat the same mistakes. I thought that if Spain could come out from a system of tyranny, so could America.

After a full day in the museum, Dave and I made our way back to the bus. Before that, we stopped at another outside cafe for a few beers. There were tourists passing by, taking in the ancient wonder of the city once occupied by the Moors. Underneath all of the past struggles, Spain left me with an impression that it was a culture full of great artistry. From every exterior wall to the modern artwork that came out of the last century, it’s a place of creativity and resilience. I could mention a few other names like Salvador Dali, but Picasso was no exception.

Later, as I was about to submit my article for consideration, I stumbled across an article on Cubism, where it argued that Picasso’s art was never really considered abstract. In contrast to the famous Cubist painter, Piet Mondrian, who linearized the form, Picasso never gave up the third dimension. He flirted with the idea, but never really became an abstract painter. I found this fascinating since most of what I saw in the museum that day to be leaning toward the abstract. It brought me back to the cat painting. The one that had engrossed me that day standing off in a corner. It wasn’t so much an abstract statement, as it was an artists inner struggle to cope with the idea of living and creating within a society trapped by totalitarian rule.

I considered the idea for a moment; it then became pretty obvious that this was how I envisioned Picasso as a younger man around the time when the painting was being conceived. Not the pictures of an older round looking man who was bald and wearing a black and white striped shirt. I imagined him surrounding himself in those early years in a blanket of protective creation. All of the elongated shapes and doorways put onto a canvas depicted a society he must have despised. One could really only speculate. It’s like those blank faced stares from the photography exhibit. The artists who took those pictures like any great painter knows that there may be some future time and place to display their work as a way to show more than what’s on the surface, like in the time of Franco’s dictatorship. Pure evil can sometimes transmit itself off the surface either from a museum canvas or darkroom print to fully manifest itself again, often into different human shapes and forms.

TAPE HISS: A Mythology

(A spoken word piece)
Days out on the highway bleed into years
Desert landscape driving
Heavy toll –
Headed out west in wayward destinations
Abandoned truck stops
Remembering the nervous trip as night
Unfolds.

Apartment winter chill, moving boxes scattered
Across the floor
Somewhat familiar – useless junk resurrected from ages ago.

Stumbling upon
A few old photos and crumpled
Post-it notes
A childhood address emerges
As light seeps through the door.
It’s my old Siamese cat creeping in slow
His arthritis I can sense with every
Cautious breath he takes
Worsening more.

Unmarked cassette tape in a pile
Defining other lifetimes
A mystery

Ready to reveal –

Evenings at “The Serenity”
Hearing tape hiss
In my brain

A

Cosmic and vibrant feeling
That still remains.

Picture of lost perfection
Black leather couch with cigarette burns
Where two kids used to shut out the world
Committing
Raw words to tape reel.

Saturday evenings,
Mic check,
Beers in hand.

We were allowing demons inside
As they bounced off the
Walls with each recited line.

Sometimes changing them in mid sentence
Other times pretending to be jazz musicians
With nothing but improv on our minds.

Poetry for none to hear but
The dead silence
And tape spinning infinite.

Hearing playbacks
The next day
I recall feeling as if it were an exercise in
Purity
But in reality
Disguised as teenage wisdom
Gone astray.

Time was misspent, much like the broken home syndrome
That made us run away
Making it easier to spit words from paper
Into microphone.

Trying to imagine
All these years later
Dust settles on mythology
Perception becomes clearer
Nothing more than swimming upstream
In a backwards river.

“Stay in touch.”

As years pass and memories disappear
Like wrappers in the backseat
I received a message.

Trying to rekindle a forgotten
Friendship
As if we’d not seen each other
In just the past few weeks.

The cigarette-burnt
Black leather couch used to be
Our only friend
But time came and went
Discovering the lost weekends
Were all we had
After several moments of trying to speak.

No more oversized flannel or ripped jeans
Burning another
Cigarette
Outside your flat – trying to reconnect.

Sometimes the act of growing up
Makes no sense.

“Stay in touch.”

Becoming the very thing
Within pages read aloud
You once dreaded
Hearing tape hiss
Reverberate sound
The cassette sent as a cosmic being
For telling of broken homes, scattered lives and dreams.

A stepson
Whom you despised
Was sent to his room
Numerous times.

In a harsh light
You spoke of your father
Now mirroring his own life
An indelible sorrow crept in like
The Siamese of my latter days;
Sadness on the tips of fingers,
Smoke drifting from
Uneasy breath.

More absent years
Not a word spoken
Suddenly the
Advent of social media arrived
Like waves changing the fabric
Of relationships
Through other peering eyes.

Now behind blank stares on the screen
I see your poems
Frequently
Trying in desperation
To capture serenity
As if it were still felt
Deep
Down inside
Knowing –

It’ll never resurface;
It died with the decade of bad hairdos
And acid wash jeans
Eddie Vedder is left to scream
But even he has aged
And his lyrics are more reflective
In a state of grace
No more

 
REWIND / REPEAT

 

To stay in touch
After years of dead vibes
Is like asking the neighbor
Who never comes outside
To visit.

When the air clears
On what you thought was divine,
Serenity glistens in the sky
For a minute
Then disappears
Like a monkey gone to heaven.

Rough around our own edges
Captured only to serve a
Specific time;

Warped and hissed

Played back on a cassette
Tape hiss
For no one

Not even burnt cigarette memories
Can reminisce.

TDH 2/17/16

Pure Ecstacy

Frozen
in a
vacuum packed heaven;
Angels
that lost touch,
were disconnected
from pure childhood ecstatic vision –
Portals entered through show
Eternity’s first sting
then back
to beginning

Untied shoelaces,
playground monkey bars –
Unleash languid swaying sensations;

Carefree vibrations,
upside down
sun glare

Multitudes of different portals
going through
Just to reach a sense of belonging
or being there

Running to catch up,
catch up with time
collisions;
A game of outer ordinary
thought desires,
never finds

the longing, swirling

cosmic truths
in old age
gone missing

When thinking of now versus then,

It’s more plain –
Unlike wearing
psychedelic shades,
child evaporates
into nothingness gleam
of day

As its soul tries to bring back something that fell
asleep
thought to be dead,
though still awake;

An untangled thread
of remembrance
little broken wings no
longer broken –
Instead
reborn
& now unlocked, so that the tunnel from which he came
can serve as
final exit for
backyard pool party
resting places,
chlorine drain
of the pure ecstasy
psychosis.

TDH 2/4/16

Money for the Train

It was a day late when I missed my bus from the Tokyo Airport back to the base where I was stationed during the unforgettable summer of 1996. Standing there, realizing that my flight had been booked incorrectly, which brought me from LAX, literally now in panic mode. I only had about 1,000 Yen in my pocket, which certainly wouldn’t be enough for me to catch an overnight train all the way from Tokyo to the most Northern tip of Honshu – which was where I needed to be by the next morning before my official leave expired. I felt like the ultimate tourist, but worse. A stranger in a strange land. There were literally thousands of neon signs in “Kanji” – the Japanese language pointing towards an exit to somewhere. But, where? What train did I need to exit to? This had not been in my plan, nor did I have an interpreter. It felt like a one way express ticket to hell at this point, with people pushing and shoving through an exit point in every direction. No American tourists in sight, and no possible safety net. For the first time in my life, I finally realized what it must have felt like for someone being on “the other side” – entering the United States of America and not having any clue where to go or any relief in sight. Not to mention a language barrier which I couldn’t seem to now get past or the difficult task of having to figure out how I was going to travel almost 10 hours north with little more than enough money to catch a few trains. Then that would be it. I would be stuck and broke. Maybe I could find a police station and try to communicate my issue. With all of the train terminals closing at 1:00 AM, I would need to find a solution or I would be out in the streets.

There were no cellphones in 1996, so there was no calling someone at the base to tell them what had happened to me. After two train stops, and another connection, I was stranded. I had no clue where I was at this point; faraway from the airport. After a look of hopelessness overcame me, in what seemed like an eternity, two women approached me. One appeared to be in her mid 60s, the other very young; her daughter perhaps? Neither of them could speak English that well, but they could tell that I was down on my luck. I tried explaining to them what had happened and for awhile it seemed they misunderstood what I needed to do. They kept trying to take me over to the police, but the younger girl was saying something to the older lady. It didn’t seem like going to the authorities was the best idea for a foreigner. After a few minutes both of them took me to a ticket counter. They purchased a ticket for me to ride the overnight train, then proceeded to escort me to the proper entry for me to catch my train. They gave me my ticket, and left me their contact information. “You can pay later” – the old woman said, and gave me a hug. So did the younger girl and they rushed off, as if by getting wrapped up in my mess they were late for some important appointment. As I boarded the train, a huge sigh of relief overcame me as the train conductor called out the name of the destination we were heading, in only nine more hours… Misawa. I would be heading home, and wouldn’t be AWOL after all. As this story relates to one of Adam Alter’s passages in Drunk Tank Pink, the chapter on Culture:

“While names, symbols, and social interactions soak up some mental energy, we move from one cultural environment to another even as our attention is drawn elsewhere. We can’t help but live in a particular country, interact with a particular group of people, or pursue a particular set of interests, and the experience shapes us until we no longer recognize that our worldview is a combination of these diverse and distinct cultural norms.”

All my adult life, I’ve mostly lived abroad, among different cultures, and immersed in a life that was open to the possibilities of what those cultures might have offered. But nothing was more universal or overwhelmingly distinct than the act of human kindness that befell upon me that day in the summer of 1996 while needing money for a train.

Works Cited
Alter, Adam Drunk Tank Pink New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

Identical Misfits

Shapeshifting from one body to the next; that’s how it often felt as I searched for an identity in the early days. In an esoteric sense, only the misunderstood can relate. Those with an undying need to be represented in some way, but were horribly mistreated by a majority that no longer even exists. Those were the 1980s. Nancy Reagan and her anti-drug era campaign of terrifying fried egg commercials. Things can drastically change in a few short decades.

I’m 42, in college, shapeshifted into a much older and liberated self. No longer a need to feel represented by shit. I’ve become a sort of art school misfit now, the thing for years I had always dreamed of being. I did take a few detours along the way, but it would have been necessary in order to free the baggage of an unhappy soul to get to this juncture. You don’t just arrive here; nothing is a fucking mistake. Accidents can and will happen; most often with positive results, but let it be known that life happens to be where you end up for good reasons. All the right reasons.

I always had to change my ideas early on, even after High School was over, in order to be accepted. Conformity is such a hard pill to swallow. Harder than any drug I ever tried. By drug i mean alcohol, my biggest demon ever. I spent plenty of time in rehabilitation facilities over the course of young adulthood trying to overcome the demons. The Military came calling shortly after High School and my identity shifted from having to adapt to whatever the “norm” of surviving the playground rules were into conforming into the Military life of how they wanted me to tie a shoelace, fold a bed properly or even holding a fork in order to shove some pretty nasty Military chow down my throat. It was that identity, though, which allowed me to ponder what I would do later on – those moments spent alone when nobody was watching me and I would actually morph into the person I really was. I could transform myself seamlessly from one person into another, like I feel many people often do in roles of political office or even celebrity. They are one identity to the “outside” world and then a total different being when in a darkenend corner of their room.

According to a passage in Real College: The Essential Guide to Student Life:

“Feeling comfortable with your identity doesn’t require you to make a choice among different aspects of yourself. If you feel pulled in different directions, the tension itself may be a part of who you are. The real you is the one with the questions, the one whose identity feels settled one day and unsettled the next.”

Sometimes the need to be a rebel had its place in an institution where rebels and misfits were not always welcomed with open arms. The inner tension within myself to break free would manifest through all night drinking binges and partying that used to last until daylight came for work the next morning. Looking back, i’m not sure how many of us functioning alcoholics made it standing in a uniform. This was a different time where you could get away with being drunk, as long as you showed up. I think it was was largely a way to cope without having to cope at all. For me, the true lesson looking back on then versus now is that nothing was truly lost but a few brain cells. Will we ever gain access to and total control of the inner misfit that wants to enjoy everything all of the time? The only realistic answer to that question would be to explore the complexity of your own human nature as you age – rather ungracefully as has been in my case. Living each day questioning every circumstance with an unsettled heart.

Works Cited

Stone, Douglas, and Elizabeth Tippett. Real College: The Essential
Guide to Student Life. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.