From the Mixed-up Files, Part Deux

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Everybody always blabs on and on about happiness and what they assume its personal manifestations might look like. I’ll bite:

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Happiness is tunneling your way through one end of this Gerhard Richter image wearing just your street clothes and emerging through the other side also wearing goose bumps.

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Happiness is knowing your daughter loves him, too.

DMA in progress (R.Turns)

DMA in progress (R.Turns)

When I was in the second grade, I read E.L. Konigsburg’s Newberry Award-winning novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In a nutshell, it’s a fun piece of children’s lit about a sister and brother who ran away from home to live inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time, I remember thinking it was a genius plan and decided the sequel should be my account of how I sneaked off to live inside the Fort Worth Japanese Gardens. Decades later, The Modern was built; the DMA was renovated; and the Japanese Gardens, as always, were still there for the taking. Stalking options open wide, I dragged my daughter, The Bell, around to inspect which would be the setting(s) for our fictional, yet non-fictional Mixed-up Files sequel.

While interviewing potentially inhabitable museums, I’ve learned some things about most tour guides: They wear loud, clickity and clackity shoes that make whatever they’re saying inaudible. Also, be prepared to sprint from piece to piece without getting much of a good look at jack squat through the blue hairs in your group. Guides get paid to rush you through art, so scratch that. If you really wanna love a museum, chat up a guard. Those folks will teach you the real deal. (Plus, it’s good to know which museums have security capable of intercepting your arrangements to move in undetected.)

During the On Kawara exhibit last year at the Dallas Museum of Art, Russell and I couldn’t stop cracking up. It WAS The Emperor’s New Clothes, for real. They deinstalled beautiful Stanley Marcus images, along with other amazing, cool stuff, in order to hang Kawara’s nine gazillion rectangular paintings of dates on solid black painted canvases. To top it off, the museum played audio of someone — possibly a hypnotized mortician — announcing the painted dates over and over and over again. Russell and I empathized with a guard as we were leaving, “Man, I’ll bet you’re sick of this.” And he shrugged off something to the effect of: “Well, working here I’ve realized you win some and you lose some, but it could always be worse.” As trite as that sounds, it had a real effect on me coming from a guy in his late teens with a neck tattoo and a possible grill inside his glove box. Although humbled, I determined that living within near proximity of what “could always be worse” wasn’t quite what I was going for. So, no thank you.

R. Turns)

We even dragged my brother along to On Kawara. (Image: R. Turns)

The Bell and I were gawking at the iceberg painting upstairs — again at the DMA — one afternoon when an elderly guard walked by and smiled. I could tell he was dying to give us some kind of history lesson, so I asked him about the past vandalization of the artwork. As the museum’s upper floors were mostly deserted, he walked with us through several rooms, stopping quietly at pieces he loved, and told us what made them important to him. Pausing graciously after pointing out each nuance within his discussion, the guard seemed very proud to share his knowledge of things not included in the descriptive cards by each artifact. He didn’t even have clickity-clackity shoes. Ack, I knew we’d never get past this guy, which was pretty devastating to my plan considering I often noticed him posted by the least garish bed in the building. Without a place to sleep, our sequel would never make it past the first chapter.

Sometimes you have to eavesdrop to really get into the meat of what’s interesting. When The Bell and Russell and I first viewed Amon Carter‘s entrancing collection of work by photographer Nell Dorr, I was puzzled by some of her experimental early stuff. It didn’t fit into the scheme of familial portraiture on the other walls, looked sci-fi and, well, bad. As I stood before something that looked like a Xeroxed tin can lid, one of the guards — a Marlboro Man if ever there was one — walked briskly toward me with another security guy, who was a Mexican kid more than half his age. I stepped out of their way.

“I’ve figured it out! I HAD to tell you. Alright, so look here on this side where the lighter marks are.”

The older guard brushed his fingers along the outside of the “tin can” part. “See that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I was reading that biography on Dorr and noticed…”

He babbled a bunch of stuff outside my plebeian understanding of most art, including photography and its various technical processes, while the Chicano kid was totally following every word. I mean, these two were captivated by the revelation. Turns out, Nell Dorr was a bit of a scientist, if you will. More importantly, I also learned I was a bit of a snooty profiler, who was intellectually one-upped by two guys I’d never think twice about in line at 7/11. These guards were worth stalking, but the rest of the museum — riddled with bronze Remingtons and other Western art — wasn’t really what I was willing to call “home.”

Last summer, Russell and I sent The Bell on a covert operation at The Modern. Her mission was to attend Art Camp and report any top secret, schematic information relevant to our plans for the sequel. Instead, The Modern turned her into a child guide-bot (still useful to the operation). On the day of her “opening,” aka The Last Day of Camp, The Modern’s staff released those of us included on The Bell’s private guest list into her custody within the regular exhibition halls. I had no idea who this child was during the entire tour.

“Now, some of you,” she addressed to my mother, Russell, myself, and our thirteen year-old neighbor, “might think this is a painting when, in fact, it is a sculpture by the artist Sean Scully.” Oh, brother, The Modern must have deflected my tactic by brainwashing my young child. The only element missing was the clickity, clackity part.

Russell asked, “What about that over there?”

Clearly annoyed, The Bell hissed through her teeth, “Russell, you KNOW that is an Andy Warhol. We have discussed it before. Ok, so moving on over here…”

This eliminated all hope for domestically relocating into The Modern (although I don’t think they’ve had a cozy place to sleep since Ron Mueck‘s “In Bed” was whisked away). Potential issues: The Bell would (a) be recognized easily now, and (b) would personally kick us out and notify the authorities as part of her guide-bot programming. Beside that, The Modern’s security personnel are the least interactive of all. They appear to be mostly students, likely underpaid, and constantly checking for five o’clock. Maybe the guards are androids, who become activated only when necessary to alert a visitor that s/he needs “to step away from the art.” I guess the assimilation is entirely appropriate…and modern. But no fun.

The definitive moment occurred when the DMA purchased Phil Collins‘ (not THAT Phil Collins, but the OTHER one) “The World Won’t Listen.”

Part of the bottom floor was converted into a very dark theater divided into three chambers, each with its own screen. And, like the answer to many of my adolescent wishes, each one of the screens simultaneously depicted different karaoke versions of Smiths’ songs sung by excited fans from three very different geographical regions. The Bell and I saw it five billion times. We purchased a membership in order to avoid going into debt.

Bella pointed out one afternoon that we’d accidentally moved into the exhibit. After all the investigating, the spying, the detailed notations about every security guard at every museum, I realized they weren’t gonna rat us out after all. In fact, they encouraged us: “Were you here on Tuesday morning?”

“I don’t think we were here.” (Liar)

“A whole bunch of school kids came through. I just love watching their reactions. Some of them dance. Some of ’em get scared. I love this exhibit.”

I’d seen it, and, yeah, it was a treasure.

This newfound bond with mankind was home for sure. Inside my wannabe mixed-up files of Predisastered, I’d discovered, like Claudia and Jamie from Konigsburg’s novel, that I didn’t need to [euphemistically] run away to find what I wanted. It’s readily available if you pay attention to the important stuff. You know, important schtuff like The Bell and the guards and the lessons those before you might have to offer. That’s the benefit of museum-bingeing for me, for junking out, for gawking about, for watching more than what’s on the walls, for listening, for sharing, and for traveling life.

In a word, it’s Happiness.

Grandmother’s Guinness Book of Something

As I kissed my Grandmother Ruth goodbye, I noticed two things: The Dunny I brought last Mother’s Day was on display next to her chair, and Grandma’s toenails were excessively overgrown. Oh, gross. I was shocked agents from Guinness hadn’t been by to authenticate some sort of world record. Unable to leave Grandma like that, I escorted her to the bedroom and sent Dad on a search for de-hoofing tools. 

“I know they’re long, KK, but I can’t get to them anymore.”

Dad returned with a complete pedicure kit. The three of us looked at each other, and I felt certain Grandma was the only one amongst us with prior foot fancification experience [Don King-ism, thank you]. I sent Dad out of the room and apologized to Grandma, “I have never done this before. I don’t want to hurt you, but some of these nails are turned under and look ingrown, ok?”

With that, I surveyed the torture devices within the nail kit. I was only cutting the nails. That was it. Nothing else, none of the frou-frou stuff.

Laying back on her pillow, Grandma winced.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you ok?”

“Yes, honey. It’s not hurting me.”

Liar. I’d have to be more careful.

I slowly worked my way across each toe on each foot. Some of the trimmings flung themselves into my face as I snipped them. I can’t believe I am doing this. Gross. A dense layer of white clippings decorated the front of my black vest like fungal, calcified snowflakes. Oooooh, my god. I brushed myself off and caught eyes with Grandma. Humiliated and embarrassed, she apologized. I pulled the giant emory board from its plastic pouch. I’m going to file this mess down so she won’t cut herself with these sharp former-talons, and that’s it.

“Does that hurt? I am bad at this kind of stuff.”

She shook her head.

“Does it tickle or anything?” 

“No, doesn’t tickle, honey.”

Twenty minutes later, Grandma had human toenails again. I could almost hear the Guinness guys getting back inside their cars. Ashy with nail dust, Ruth wiggled her toes.

“Thank you so much. I know how unpleasant that was.”

Sigh, I am going to wash her feet with a washcloth, and that is it.

“I hope this isn’t too cold. I have to clean your feet.”

“Alright. Thank you again.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Grandma.”

I blotted the pads of her toes.

“Oh, I really do appreciate this. It feels so nice.”

Good, I wasn’t killing her. I grabbed the mammoth bottle of lotion next to her pillow.

“I’m going to massage your feet a minute, ok?”

She leaned back and closed her eyes. I worked the lotion over her incredibly dehydrated feet and calves.

“That just feels wonderful.”

“I’m so glad to do it. All you have to do is ask for help.”

“You get used to it — the long toenails and, you know, the other things that happen when you get older.”

“You don’t have to. Dad is always here.”

“I hate to bother him,” she said as she struggled up. “I can’t find the controller for my bed. It is usually right here.”

I put the lotion on the shelf and raised her into a sitting position. Ruth grabbed my hand. “I know your father did not have a perfect life, and I want you to forgive him like I forgave his father. Your grandfather wanted to do things, to buy things for you all, but he couldn’t bring himself to…to communicate. He was so awful at that.”

I sat down next to her. There wasn’t anything left in the pedicure case for me to tackle her with next. 

“I know, Grandma.”

“You were a handful, KK. You were not an easy child. I am still so proud of you, my sweet grand daughter. Look at you now. Just look at you.”

Look at what? What did she mean? 

Grandma continued, “You don’t even know it yet.”

“Know what, Grandma?”

“You’re a good person. I love you so very much. I wanted you to know.”

We were totally having the conversation I wanted to have with her at the hospital. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, my face was coated in thick layers of tears — the variety that drop directly from your eyes, like rain, and without your even having realized them. I buried my head in her lap and bawled and told her I loved her, too. And…

“…I know Grandpa meant well. I know he wasn’t treated nicely, but everybody is fine.”

She patted my hair.

“I love you so much, KK. You know I love you, don’t you?”

“I do.” Lifting my head, I looked up at her sideways like I did when I was little. She smiled down at me and wiped my cheeks. I put my head back down on her lap while she continued stroking my hair, and we sat like that for a very long time. I couldn’t gauge it, but the light changed outside, I know.

She knows she’s old and that it’s time to quit looking at the world through bullshit-colored glasses, I guess. I’m so glad she flagged me down.

Next week, I’m driving back to Dad’s. Maybe this time, I’ll bring polish. I’m on a roll with this pedicure thing.

Perhaps, I should practice polishing my own toes while I’m at it, even.

The Ruth App

This is Ruth, my grandmother. I wanted to begin this pre-disastered journey with a slice about her. 

As you can most likely tell, Ruth isn’t exactly the sort of gal you’d see running around, showing her tits at a Slayer show. At least, I hope she’s not. Continue reading