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August 14, 2005

Somewhere at Sea, Sometime in the Seventies

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My mother always wanted to go on a cruise, but she was realistic enough to see that this wasn't going to happen until cruise ships boasted golf courses.

Or until, as she did not foresee, my father's golf game went to hell, which it did sometime in his fifties. It may have been the change in courses, from Bronxville's Siwanoy to Houston's Houston (or the change in climate), but Dad never blamed anything but himself. He just stopped playing well enough to stay interested and to make the effort.

I can't recall how many cruises my parents embarked on when at last my father consented to take one, but it couldn't have been many. Whether my mother was aware that she was ill when this picture was taken is another thing that I don't remember, but if she wasn't, she would be soon. There is something slightly pinched about her face that suggests to me that the non-Hodgkins lymphoma was already at work.

I'm pretty sure that my parents took this cruise with a party of friends, made up of other St Michael's parishioners. Landing in Houston well into middle age, they had two sets of friends, one based on the pipeline business and one that my mother called, without fear or trembling, "The Catholic Mafia." The latter were, quietly, very rich. Some of them didn't even work - my parents had never known people like that. But they seemed to have a very good time together. The men were always saying things that the women found very funny. That hadn't been the rule in Bronxville. But my recollections are fragmentary. In my mid-twenties, and already a divorced father, I wasn't paying much attention to my parents. I knew that I was never going to take a place in the corporate aristocracy in which they had both shined (my mother was a born "company wife"), but I had no idea of where I was going to fit in. When this picture was taken, I had probably not quite decided to take the LSAT again, and this time to complete it.

I went to law school because it was a way out of Houston. But my father was all for it. "You'll make a great lawyer," he said. "You can write." It's almost funny.

August 07, 2005

Boy!

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Boy, does this look good. With another sultry week forecast, I try to estivate, which means feeling as little as possible while the days go by. It is extremely demoralizing, and no amount of air-conditioning completely clears up the fug of stationary air. On TV5 yesterday, I heard about drought-related fires in Provence and in Portugal.

After the news, a show came on called "Les Enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome," about a woman police investigator. It was surprisingly engaging, and I was eager for the dénouement. But I missed it, thanks to a phone call that I had to take. Now I will never know whether the doctor's wife was really about to die from pancreatic cancer. That's what I get for watching television.

Oh, let it snow!

July 31, 2005

Spring 1974, Montrose

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Or, Why I Don't Miss My Hair.

My parents kept me in a crew cut until college. When I first let it grow, my mother gently suggested that hair can be sold to mattress companies. Funny lady! Even though it was always hot in Houston, even when it was freezing, I had to let my hair grow to no-longer-fashionable length just because I could. The beard here is even worse. I never touch my beard now. I let Alfredo at the Clermont Barbershop trim it nicely every couple of weeks or so.

All this talk about hair is supposed to keep you from asking, "Why is that little girl wearing a head scarf? Or whatever it is." Can Miss G have been an unwitting victim of the Zardoz craze? I fear that it is so, even though the results are more Edith Sitwell than Charlotte Rampling.

July 24, 2005

Sous le pont de la Concorde coule la Seine, April, 1993

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If Kathleen seems to be frowning (she isn't, actually), that's because she knows I'm going to tell the "Pont Dix" joke when we get home. We are crossing the Seine on the Pont de la Concorde, heading out from our hotel - the Crillon! I won a raffle! (too many Texans) - to the Café de Flore, because it is a Sunday and not much else is open. As I recall, this was the only rainy day of our first trip to Paris.

The Place de la Concorde started out as the Place Louis XV but served as the Place de la Révolution in the 1790's, and was the scene of much guillotining. I have been reading Colin Jones's Paris: The Biography of a City (Viking, 2005), and at the moment, Baron Haussmann is just rolling up his sleeves. But the orderly Paris that is the Second Empire's greatest legacy was framed by great disorders, in 1848 and 1871, and there were plenty of other uprisings earlier in the century. Mr Jones exhibits a two-page woodcut of the tenth anniversary of the Trois Glorieuses, the 1830 revolt that drove out Charles X, the last of the main-line Bourbons. He would be followed by his cousin, Louis-Philippe, who as king in 1840 inaugurated a commemorative column at the Place de la Bastille, but Mr Jones misses the chance to inform the reader that if you want to imagine what the parade was like you have only to turn to Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale, a truly amazing piece of band music, with a chorus at the very end. The dead march that opens the "symphony" is one of the most moving pieces of public music that I have ever heard; the very pace is mortuary. Hopeful motifs, whenever they sound, are invariably crushed by huge chords of grief. It is overwhelming stuff, and I wonder if it has ever been used again. Sorrowfully, France has had many suitable occasions for reviving it.

July 17, 2005

Portland Head, c. 1995

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D'you, I don't remember when I took this photograph. It would be somewhere in the neighborhood of ten years ago, when we still had our second vacation place - the one that we ought to have bought first and last - on Thomas Pond, just outside Windham, Maine. Hugging Kathleen is our great old friend, Barry, and in the background is the Portland Head Light.

When Kathleen and I were married, Barry was the best man. He was the oldest friend that Kathleen and I had in common. We had all met at Notre Dame just a few years before. Barry was pursuing a doctorate in government, while Kathleen and I were law students. We were all Pay-Caf regulars.

Kathleen flew into Portland this morning, to join some chums from Sebago Wohelo, a summer camp that for many years was a lot more than that for Kathleen. I forget what the occasion is, but Kathleen will be staying at the home of a friend, on another part of Sebago, and not at the camp itself, for the perfectly good reason that the camp is fully occupied by current campers.

July 10, 2005

Liberal

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I still dress like this, although I tuck my shirt in now. The only other difference, style-wise, is that I dress like this all year round.

This undated snapshot was taken, I deduce, at Liberal, Kansas in 1962. Liberal, where the company that my father worked for had extensive operations (I say that because I can't remember what the hell it was), was the second stop in a fantastic cross-country business trip that we were taken on. We started out at Kansas City, then flew (on small company propeller planes) to Liberal, and from Liberal to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe we took the AT&SF - which, at least by that time, no longer passed through Sante Fe itself - to Los Angeles. We had drawing rooms with convertible sofas. I could hardly sleep for the excitement, though. The train snaked through the Rockies at speed! From Los Angeles we flew to San Francisco, in a prop jet - I think that the model's name was "Electra." From San Francisco, well, I forget how we got to Clinton, Iowa, which, as I mentioned last week, was my father's birthplace. On a plane through Chicago, doubtless. But I remember Chicago as coming after Clinton, and perhaps that's the mistake. At Clinton, an elderly barber who remembered my father from long back, and who had no idea that I was adopted, assured me that I would never go bald.

Here's a closeup:

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Would you wish being fourteen on anybody?

July 03, 2005

Bowling Green, The Museum of the American Indian, Battery Park, Early 1980s.

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In 1933, my grandfather, William John Keefe, a lawyer and Democratic Party operative in Clinton, Iowa, was appointed to the bench of the U.S. Customs Court. Since it is not an "Article III" court - see our Constitution - Congressional approval is not required, making the Customs Court a perfect reward for political favors such as the one that my grandfather worked for FDR at the 1932 convention. The Court, its predecessor and it successor (the United States Court of International Trade) sits in New York City, and the the building that currently houses the Museum of the American Indian was built to be the Alexander Hamilton Custom House between 1899 and 1907. The building was designed by Cass Gilbert, and the imposing sculptures were wrought by Daniel Chester French. It's typical of my youthful solipsism that I never made absolutely certain (by asking my father) that "the Judge," as my grandfather was known to everyone after his promotion, actually held court in this building, but I can't think where else he would have done so. Taking the position, in any case, required him to move, with his wife and two sons, to the New York area. My father never forgot arriving via the recently-complete George Washington Bridge.

The building was unoccupied when the picture was taken, and would remain so for some time. The Court moved to the World Trade Center when it was built. After 9/11, it found home at 1 Federal Plaza, near the other courthouses in Manhattan. Presumably it will stay there, whatever is put up on the devastated site.

A new design for the Freedom Tower, the flagship of current redevelopment plans of the World Trade Center site, was unveiled this week. It is simpler than Daniel Libeskind's first design, and it sits on a fortified pedestal. It looks more likely to stand up than its predecessor, and more imposing than the dim-witted Twin Towers, which I sincerely hope will be rebuilt verbatim, so to speak, in Dallas, Texas, where they always belonged. But even though I actually like the new plan, I'm joining the growing body of people who believe that nothing (aside from the memorials) ought to be built on the site for the foreseeable future. Construction makes no economic sense; the one building to be replaced, 7 World Trade Center, is said to have no tenants lined up for its fall opening - an extraordinarily strange situation. Beyond that, I see the site as a wound that must be allowed to heal naturally, at the hands of people who weren't alive on that terrible day. Until then, we ought to content ourselves with the stewardship of a park. Build an office complex in Long Island City and give it to Larry Silverstein - but leave Ground Zero alone. Let's put something beside square footage first. 

June 26, 2005

Spring, 1980, South Bend, Indiana

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The parents meet. From left to right, my father, Kathleen's brother, Kathleen's mother, my step-mother, Kathleen, and Kathleen's father. Presumably we went out for dinner somewhere after drinks. It went very nicely; everyone got on. Aside from my father, everyone is in the picture is still with us and thriving.

It's my belief that in-law problems are the result, not the cause, of a shaky marriage. If both parties are really in love, and each puts the other first, then in-laws, no matter how obnoxious, interfering, or even hateful, remain pains in the neck, bores to be borne. And you bear them because you're in love. Your spouse doesn't let them interfere with his or her decisions about the two of you. It's only when one of these statements is not true that the in-law nastiness can poison a relationship. In case this sounds too easy, there's a catch. There's no way to be sure that you're going to put your spouse ahead of your parents until they've all spent some time together. One of the worst assumptions that you can make is that, having passed the first rencontre with flying colors, your spouse is going to continue to delight your parents. You have to make sure that the mutual exposure is wide-ranging, with perhaps a helpful argument or a neatly-defused squabble providing enlightenment. This is a hard program for lovers who feel sure about marriage. But then, I wasn't really talking about how not to enter a marriage that will become shaky.

June 19, 2005

Summer, 1980, West 81st Street

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Kathleen, in a moment stolen from studying for the Bar exam. In case you're curious, we both passed the first time. It was one of those fat-envelope, thin-envelope things: you definitely wanted to find your mailbox jammed with a fat one, stuffed with further applications - because passing the Bar in New York makes you eligible to apply for membership. Interviews, character references - a real pain in the neck. But if you saw the thick envelope, you were past the worst. You knew before you even opened it.

To tell or not to tell? Kathleen is thinking of joining the Straphangers Campaign, an organization of subway riders who seek to put pressure on the powers that be. When she mentioned this again the other day, I remembered something that I'd seen at Gothamist and asked myself, should I tell her or not tell her? Not a believer in fools' paradises, I told her. She wasn't happy to hear that the Grand Hyatt, a mediocrity from the 1980's, may collapse upon the northbound Lexington Avenue train - which, according to a piece by the Straphangers leader, Gene Russianoff (he may even have founded it), carries forty percent of the entire system's traffic. And you wonder why we're screaming for a Second Avenue Line.

June 12, 2005

There is justice in this world.

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This is the nose of a small jet taken at some time within five years of 1970. The plane belonged to the company of which my father was then a senior executive, Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co., long since folded into other entities (but not Enron). During my years in Houston, I didn't travel very much, but when I did I was hitching a ride on a plane like this. For over seven years, I was innocent of airlines and airports. As you can infer, I am standing on the tarmac right in front of the plane. Somewhere to the right of the shot is an automobile or two, their trunks opened so that luggage can be carried directly onto the plane - by the pilots themselves (they liked to do the stowing). I imagine that private jet travel is still much like this, but perhaps in the wake of 9/11 it's a little less simple. Driving up to a plane and walking a few steps to board it, let me assure you, can spoil you for life.

In 1977, my widowed father and I took a trip to Europe. We crossed the Atlantic on a Pan Am 747 - in coach. Coach was a terrible shock to my system, and I remember feeling a little weird being in this giant metal bucket over the middle of the Atlantic in the pitch dark. But flying had never bothered me much, and I arrived in London without excessive relief at finding myself on the ground. The short trip to Paris, our next leg, was smooth, too. It was the next flight, in a Caravelle, from Paris to Vienna, that my fear of flying took hold. I had the unshakable conviction throughout that we were in a sharp, soon to be screeching, descent, even though the mountains below grew no closer. My fear of flying was the legacy of all those private flights. I never doubted that the company planes were in tiptop shape because I knew how proud the pilots were of their ships. This was a confidence that I have never been able to extend to the fine mechanics at American Airlines - doubtless because I don't know them.

So if you're looking for payback, look no further.

June 05, 2005

Fever

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My late mother and my daughter, Houston, 1974. Ms G came pretty close to being late herself this week. I only found out about it afterward, when she called last night to say that she'd just gotten out of the hospital. I was able to follow what followed, but the shock took a long time to wear off. With a very high fever on Monday night, she decided to take herself to the emergency room. They put her on an antibiotic drip, but they never did identify the pathogen. When her temperature returned to normal, they - no individual doctor was ever named; I expect she was seen to by residents - kept her for another day, for observation. While battling the inexplicable fever, Ms G had to contend with phone calls from Houston: there had been a death in her mother's family. "So I'm afraid you got pushed down to the bottom of the list, Dad." Of course, this is what I worry about every time I have any difficulty making contact. "So we'll talk tomorrow," I said before hanging up. After all, she still felt tired and a little nauseated. I called her place of employment twice and then called again, this time going for a live person. The very nice woman who took the call said that she hadn't seen my daughter but would be happy to check the cubicles. Five minutes later (it seemed), I heard a familiar voice. "Sorry, Dad." It would worse if I weren't use to the same sort of thing from my dear Kathleen.  

May 29, 2005

L'addition, s'il vous plaît.

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When our law school chum, Michelle Gianni, became a partner at Suisman Shapiro, the large law firm in New London, Connecticut, she paid us a visit and we treated her to dinner at La Côte Basque, which was still on the East Side in those days. Kathleen was still an associate at Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, but she was already spending a lot of time at Pandick Press, then a large financial printer. To make sure that we got a good table, Kathleen asked one of the salesman to make the reservation, but she made a point of asking him not to pay for it. Our table was indeed a good one; seated in the corner of the front room, we could see everyone. I was very careful about the wine - alas. Because when I asked for the check, I was told that it had been taken care of. "Thank you very much," I replied quietly, while Kathleen bellowed "WHAT?"