Sunday, July 27, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 52: DIABLO



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE


January 2007


Next morning, a motioning into the very heart of Paris:  Ile St-Louis, a village in the middle of the River Seine connected to land by a number of bridges.  

Paris was born here, protected by a natural moat.  Now it is the French capital’s quaintest neighborhood–-reflected in real estate prices.

We stroll St Louis en L’ile and poke into a Venetian mask shop.  On a back shelf, a devil mask collects dust, its price far below the amount of craftsmanship that went into burnishing it by hand.  
        
Van Stein must paint it.  Within minutes, we find a venue:  Sorza, a small restaurant with a flaming red backdrop.  

Van Stein enters with JL, speaks with the proprietor, who agrees to let him paint inside.

“Does he know what you’re going to paint?” I ask.

“He’ll know soon enough.”  Van Stein holds out the mask.  “Here, wear it.”

“Me?”

“Who else?”

“Why not JL?   He’s the one who keeps farting.” 

“C’mon, put it on.”

I slip the mask over my head.

“Whoa!” he gasps.

We expect the restaurant proprietor to throw us out when he sees Van Stein’s subject, but he says nothing, watches quietly from a corner table while assorted pedestrians stop dead in their tracks and peer through the window, questioning their eyes, as it appears Lucifer is basking inside. 

Van Stein works quickly on this alla prima sketch, finishing in thirty minutes, thank God, because it’s hot as hell beneath the mask.

I hand Van Stein the mask.  “Can you keep this in your room tonight?”

Van Stein, our decoy, heads out with his paints.  Whatever goons have mobilized are focused on the artist, while JL and I steal around dark shadows within the City of Light.

When they realize Van Stein is just an artist, our cell phones come under merciless attack.  The only way to avoid revealing our position—and our telephone and live conversations-–is battery removal.

Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE
We regroup at dusk, a bottle of Margaux, in a dark, candle lit corner of Le Sergent Recruteur. Van Stein paints Exchanging Secrets.
      
We’re operating on four hours-a-night sleep.

For me, sleep deprivation is exacting a price.  It starts with anxious dreams.  In one, I’m having a brush with official-dumb.  I have jaywalked, and a uniformed female Nazi wants to make a federal case of me.  I point out that enforcers of laws or by-laws are blessed, if they’re smart enough (unusual), with something called discretion.  

That is, they’re capable (usually not) of assessing ill intent on the spot and handling the situation accordingly.  

The Nazi suffers meltdown over my audacity and summons brutes to subdue me with tazers and threat of strip-search.  

But it is the second dream that truly spooks me:  I awaken, not in my hotel room as expected, but in a hotel lobby I do not recognize.  My bags are gone.  When I anxiously enquire about where my possessions are, where I am, a woman behind a desk replies that I have been asleep for three days and nights.  This thought occurs to me:  I’ve been out cold for three days and nights?  I don’t know where I am?  HAVE I FINALLY LOST MY MIND?


Next morning, JL farts goodbye and propels himself home to Monaco.

Van Stein and I return to London, same hotel, full gloom.  And next day out again, to whence we came.  

I put the brakes on, but it’s hard to stop motioning, like when you get off a freeway after driving eighty-five miles an hour all day and suddenly you’re supposed to do thirty through town.

That’s how Van Stein and I feel at Starbucks, Montecito, at 4:48 in the morning; lagged, still driving fast.  

The artist shakes his head, dribbles cappuccino foam.  “How do I explain to anyone what we’ve been through?”  He throws a backhand wave at the ceiling.   “How do I explain them!”

Van Gogh, Dymphna, Dali, James Dean, and Big Mac hover overhead, awaiting our next move.

“Don’t even try,” I whisper.  “If word gets out, they’ll be coming to take you away.”  I pause.  “And maybe me, too.  We should probably change our focus.”

“A little late, no?”  Van Stein eyes Dali.   

“If we’ve got orbs, or they’ve got us, there must be a God.  It’s our job to find him.”

“Why?”

“All this business about angels and devils, it’s a signpost.  Only God can resolve our quest into creativity and madness.”

“So where are we supposed to find Him,” says Van Stein. “The Vatican?”

“The Vatican is just another organized cult, like all ancient religions.  We found the devil in freezing cold Iceland, the opposite of what anyone would expect, and that actually makes sense because the devil’s job is to deceive.  So my guess is, on the basis that life, and humor (according to Jonathan Winters), is about irony, we’ll find God in a hot zone, a red hot zone.”




Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 51: BIG MAC





January 2007

Florence, Italy


We need to snuggle closer to Machiavelli.  This means an unplanned return to Florence, and St. Croces Cathedral, where the remains of Florence’s revered creative types (Michelangelo, Galileo, et al) are interred.

Mass is underway when we arrive, so our driver whisks us to an offbeat museum devoted entirely to angels and devils.  Long corridors and prison-like rooms, not much larger than cubicles, each preserving off-kilter frescoes, paintings and icons that all seem bent on scaring the hell out of everyone to pray and repent or spend all eternity being eaten, pitch-forked, knifed, speared and dismembered by that Emperor and Lord of Hell, Lucifer, and minor devils including, but not limited to, Cagnazzo, Gooseberry, Moco, and of course, Ticky-Tacky.

We motion back to St. Croces and Machiavelli’s cenotaph:  a larger-than-life statue and, on the marble floor, a rectangular crypt-like design suggesting the relics of Big Mac lay beneath.   

JL climbs over the rope barrier to peer down upon him.

“That’s what he wanted,” I whisper. 

JL throws a backward glance.  “Huh?”

“For you to pay attention.  You’re doing to him what he did to you.”

JL regards me with a quizzical expression.

“Your dream at the villa,” I say.  “It wasn’t an alien.”  I point at the statue of the alien-faced Machiavelli. “It was a Big Machia Attack.  Niccolo wanted you to notice him.”

JL’s eyes widen with epiphany.  “You’re right!  it was him!”

“Now he knows you got the message, he can rest in peace.”  I pause.  “He didn’t rape you, did he?”

JL blushes.  “From where do you get these ideas?”

“It’s not easy being me.”  I point at Latin words inscribed in marble on the slab.  “What do you want your own epitaph to say?”

“Epitaph?”   Thirty-somethings view death as an absurd concept.

“Final words, on your gravestone.”

“Never thought about it.  You?”

I miss me.”

Machiavelli’s relics, alas, may not lie in this spot.  His actual burial place is unknown, but it is probably within the grounds of Villa Mangiacane, and that is where his spirit roams.  That is where he went mad.

Hence, a tie-in to the Bounce not expected when we motioned ourselves across continent and ocean less than one week before. 

When he was twenty-five years old in 1494, two years after Columbus discovered America, Machia, as his friends knew him, entered government service in Florence as a clerk.  

A well-fortified and bustling city-state, Florence was an appealing prize to papal armies and neighboring countries.  The mighty Medicis had just been overthrown and expelled; Florence transformed into a republic.  

This suited Machiavelli just fine, since he was really a republican, and non-religious humanist, in conscience. He came to believe, however, that only an autocratic royal ruler, a prince, could defend a city-state from hostile foreign powers.  He kept his thoughts to himself as, in the capacity of Second Chancellor, undertook diplomatic missions and, for three years, took charge of the Florentine militia, whose job it was to defend the city.

It all turned sour for Big Mac in August 1512 when the republic was scrapped and a new Pope restored the Medicis to power. 

They returned with vengeance.  

On November 7th Machiavelli was fired.  A couple months later he was arrested on charges of conspiring to overthrow the new regime, thrown into the clink and interrogated by torture.  

Big Mac was strappado’d (hung from his hands tied behind his back, hoisted to the ceiling and dropped, stopping short just before hitting the floor).  Six times.  

He admitted nothing, denied everything, grew an inch or two.

The Medicis eventually released Machia; they booted his butt to his family’s family estate in San Casciano, where he lived in exile.

Politics and statecraft was all Machiavelli cared about.  He tried to talk his way back into Florence, pledging support for the Medici rule, anything that would keep him in the game, to no avail.    

For a political junkie like Machiavelli, exile was almost as bad as the strappado.

To take his mind off the intrigue he was missing in Florence, Machiavelli worked in the fields of his family estate, supervising the cutting of trees to be sold as firewood, and playing backgammon in the local tavern.    

Evenings were preserved for solitude and madness.  

This is what he wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori on December 10th, 1513:

When evening comes, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I strip naked, taking off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on the regal robes of court and palace; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which is only mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them and I pass indeed into their world.

Machiavelli believed that he interacted directly with Dante, Plutarch, and Plato.  

This became his art, upon which he was totally focused; it provided therapeutic escape from his fears and depression and led, ultimately, to his penning The Prince–-a work produced by what today’s New Agers would call trance-channel.

No doubt Machiavelli suffered depression from his banishment.  But did torture push him over the edge of sanity, into the realm of hallucination?  

Talking to the dead qualifies as an idea of reference; hallucination is criterion for schizophrenic disorder.  Big Mac’s words also imply fears of poverty and death-delusions, which are symptoms of psychosis.

So:  Was Machiavelli nuts?  

Had the Medicis driven him to depression and madness?

We had not sought Machiavelli; would not have imagined him a player in our creativity and madness paradigm.  

But the Bounce-–maybe Vincent, Dymphna or Dali, all three-–put us on a metaphysical wavelength upon which Big Mac reeled me and Van Stein to him—to convince us of his qualifications for membership in our travelling orb club.  

Machiavelli’s dialog with the great philosophers, which morphed into The Prince, was published posthumously thirty years after he wrote it.  

Like Vincent van Gogh, Big Mac died feeling a failure.  

He tried to use his unpublished treatise to tease the Medicis into bringing him back to help govern Florence.  

Truth was, the Medicis had him pegged:  Machiavelli was a mediocre statesman who took no risks for fear of compromising himself.  

He was good at two things:  

One, Playing all sides, and...

Two, Writing literature, for which his name endures.  

When the Medicis crashed and burned in 1527, giving way to a new republican government, Machiavelli rushed to Florence to lobby for high position.  But he got sick, and died, oblivious to the notion that one day Merriam-Webster would define Machiavellian as cunning or devious.  Or that his smirk would captivate the world’s imagination for centuries to come.  

This is where Van Stein and I crack the real Da Vinci code.  Forget Dan Brown and The Last Supper.  

The real story is that Big Mac and Leonardo knew each other in Florence during the first decade of the 1500s.  They even worked together, from 1503 until 1506, on a bold engineering project to re-route the River Arno away from Pisa, with whom Florence was at war, to deprive the Pisans a fresh water supply.  

It failed, causing Da Vinci to exile himself to Milan for fear of reprisal, but also from a broken heart.  

Da Vinci, a homosexual, was in love.  

With Big Mac.  

He documented his love by painting Machiavelli as a woman.  

The Mona Lisa was painted between 1503 and 1506, the same years Machiavelli and Da Vinci worked together.  

Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile is Big Mac’s enigmatic smirk, described by Machia’s biographer as “neither a grin nor a sneer; a shield to protect against prying eyes.”   

Mona Lisa’s lash-less, almond-shaped eyes and manly hands also match Machiavelli; moreover, the valley behind Mona Lisa is based upon sketches Da Vinci drafted for the Arno River diversion project.  

The painting, which Da Vinci never sold and always kept near him, dear to his heart, pays homage to his love for Machiavelli. 


Villa Mangiacane stands forlorn and desolate when we return for our bags.  And now Machiavelli is deserting it, too; set free by the séance to join our mystical band of sleep-deprived motioners.

None of us want this road trip to end.  So arrival in Monaco is not joyful, but a time to un-cling–-from motional to emotional, until it’s just me and Van Stein at Quai des Artistes quaffing grosse gambas with artichoke-stuffed ravioli in truffle sauce, a bottle of Margaux to wash it down.

(Later, when Van Stein complains about this trip’s high cost, which he must repay in paintings, I respond thus:  “The right time to protest was just before biting into the grosse gambas, not long after it’s been recycled.”)



Friday, July 25, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 50: HOMAGE TO MACHIAVELLI



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE


January 2007, Near Florence, Italy


In the morning, which for us arrives late, a wall of white fog seals the loggia.  None of us have ever seen anything so surrealistically astonishing in its blankness.  

Visibility:  Not one inch.

Breakfast is a buffet of smoked meat laid out in the kitchen.  Fortunately, Boris’s dog is barking outside.

Boris is still around, evidenced by a brand-new Rolls-Royce with Monaco tags parked outside.  (He had told Natasha, along with members of his dinner party, that Monaco’s sovereign prince had given him the fancy wheels for making it to this meeting, a ridiculous lie.)

When we next look outside, the fog has cleared.  A driver rolls us into Florence, where Van Stein sets an easel along the River Arno, turning his back on the famed Ponte Vecchio for an obscure view. 

In the afternoon we motion to Siena, a Tuscan city on this day half enveloped in fog, bestowing it a mystical quality that exemplifies the thick texture and tapestry of Europe.  Strolling through the 100 percent marble Duomo, it is clear that Italy is the right place to look up angels and devils.  

Or they will find you.

The Villa Mangiacane is quiet on our return.  Boris and Igor and the others have departed.  Natasha dashes to the house computer, spends twenty minutes on the Internet.

“What’s she doing?”  Van Stein hasn’t trusted her for one second since the road trip began.

I shrug.  “Probably email.”

Van Stein shakes his head.  “She’s looking at sites.  Russian sites.”

“How do you know that?”

“I went on after her.  The computer keeps a record of recent sites visited.  She visited a dozen in twenty minutes.”  Like, now do you believe she’s a Russian spy?

“Do you have a record of the sites she surfed?”   

Van Stein nods triumphantly.  “I’ve already e-mailed it to myself.”

(The sites relate to esoteric topics:  magic, witchcraft and astrology.)

“Careful,” I say.  “Boris may have a keyboard logger.”

“A what?”

“Change your password.”

Later, we motion back to Florence, a restaurant called Ana Murate (The Walls) because of its ancient frescoes, uncovered by accident during a paint-stripping renovation.  

Centuries earlier these were judges chambers, and quite likely where Machiavelli was condemned to exile.

We gift Van Stein with a special pen:  a limited edition Van Gogh, produced by Visconti of Florence.  

“Is it bugged?” says Van Stein, looking at Natasha.

“You would like, Chatka?”  This is Natasha’s pet name for the artist, a Russian word that means hat, as Van Stein is rarely without a baseball cap crowning his pate.

“Time to call Boris and report in.”

“Nonsense.”  Natasha points to the implant scar on her left temple.  “He already hears.”

JL, egged on by Van Stein, engages Natasha, looks her directly in the eye.  “Who are you working for?”  

Then he looks at me, befuddled.  “Wait a minute, who am I working for?”

“Be careful, Toy-Boy,” says Natasha, though JL’s nickname should be Muttley for his snickering wheeze of a laugh when he farts.

A chef’s taster menu delights us; much mirth and merriment ensues, while Van Stein sketches frescoes, 

Natasha waxes covert and Toy-Boy turns philosophical.  

“My father, Bernard, who died when I was twelve, gave me two bits of advice,” says Toy-Boy.  “Coincidence is the form God takes to remain incognito.”  He stops.

“And the other?” I ask.

“Trust me, son, condoms don’t work.”

Outside, the word angels, accented with a halo, is reflected from somewhere onto the pavement. 


We return to Villa Mangiacane at midnight.  Erica, who resides in the gatehouse, unlocks the villa, sees us in—and Machiavelli’s old home is ours alone to explore.  

Van Stein takes a number of photographs, until dear Niccolo appears in an orb, with a facial expression that says, “Oops, got me!”  

Other orbs join the party:  Vincent, Dymphna, and Dali…  

“We need candles and matches,” says Van Stein, creating a still life:  ten candles, forming a circle around a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince, his new Van Gogh pen and a glass of red wine.  

Twice the artist stops to stand back for perspective.  

Twice, a music stand near the table shudders, not stopping until Van Stein is beckoned back to the easel.  

You’re not finished-–keep painting!

When the picture is finally complete, past four in the morning, Van Stein discovers he has inexplicably painted an extra candle.



Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 49: THE ROCKY & BULLWINKLE SHOW





January 2007


At daylight we motion along the autostrada enchanted by the voice of Joseph McManners, a stand-alone choirboy who sings Music of the Angels, inadvertently in the car’s CD player.

First (or second) angel.

Stoked by frothy cappuccino, we roll onward to our intermediate destination, as plotted by JL:  the town of Petromoli, at Moon Valley’s very heart, surrounded on three sides by unusual mountain ranges, one of which, the Appennines, resembles the edge of a lunar crater.  

The whole valley feels like a moon crater.  

We stretch our legs, greeted by a sign, Pro Loco, while, down the road, a loco moon-faced female yells at a stationary car, the only activity in Petromoli this afternoon.  

We ascend the old fortress, now a museum, situated on Petromoli’s highest ground.  We are the only visitors all day, probably all week, perhaps all month, maybe all year.  

A solitary museum clerk takes our euros, looks at us like we’re out of our minds to be here and permits us free roaming through a desolate fortress that seems based less on moon worship than earth cruelty.  

A jail, a dungeon.  Unspoken horrors have left an aura of fright.  

A plaque discloses that Emperor Barbarossa had designated the local aristocracy Counts of Luni.   

These genuine lunies carved mushroom people out of stone and worshipped them in moonlight, from which  certain etchings and symbols could be seen.  

Lunies claim to be the inspiration (and origin) for Britain’s Stonehenge.

Down the road, an impressive cathedral, quite large for so small a town–-as if Christians behind its creation did their damned best to sway the natives from such pagan ritual as moon worship.  

Yet, above the altar, at the apex of a cross, is a round, glass object that resembles the moon.  

So who was fooling whom?  

Did the cathedral builders use the moon as a lure?  

Or had they been infiltrated by moon worshippers?

Dusk turns to darkness as we roll south.  Road-signs make no sense, but guided by hi-tech navigational equipment JL wheels us to the town of San Casciano, ten miles from Florence, and the Villa Mangiacane, literally, Dog Eaters.

An electronic gate slides open; a long dirt path leads to the three-story villa, looming esoterically in the shadows.

JL has visited this villa only once, two years before, when it played host to the spookiest event of his life:  As he lay in bed, held captive by sleep, he felt a presence, studying him closely.  Mustering all his energy to force his eyes open, he snagged a fleeing phantasm with a high-domed head, tight-skinned face with mischievous smirk and long neck, wearing a strange gown.  

A classic alien profile.  

JL awakened from this experience believing he had been fiddled with by extraterrestrials.

“We have the royal suite ready for you,” says Erica, the villa’s hostess.

“No, not necessary,” says JL, a member of Monaco’s royal family.  “Put me near my friends.”

Lavish duplex suites await us, connected by a communal loggia with twenty-foot high ceiling and a view of Florence eight miles away, its light casting a halo over a city famous for renaissance intrigue-–the Medicis and the Borgias, and the greatly misunderstood Niccolo Machiavelli.

Within a few minutes it becomes clear why we have found this place–-or why it has found us:  This villa is the Machiavelli family seat, to which the father of political science was banished, from Florence, by the autocratic Medicis, and where, for fourteen years, he wrote his discourses, including an enduring master thesis called The Prince.

There is time, however, only to savor, not digest, this piece of information, because a more pressing matter demands our attention.  

“There is somebody staying here who knows that you are related to the Prince and wants to meet you,” Erica tells JL.

“Who?”

“Gotcha Arivadze,” she replies.

Second devil (or third)?

JL exchanges glances with me.  It is a name we both know from our princely work.  Arivadze, an affable crook, amassed a large fortune through various shenanigans and used it to penetrate the Prince of Monaco’s orbit of friends, probably on behalf of the Russian special services.  

“What’s he doing here?” I interject.

“A dinner party.”  Erica motions at the dining room.

Through a doorway we behold about a dozen austere men seated around an oval table.

We are now a cartoon from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  

JL is Rocky; Van Stein is Bullwinkle.  

And Anjelika, our Russian spy, is Natasha.  

With barely a cue from me, she bounces into the dining room, sans invitation, and says, “Good evening!  Nice to hear the Russian language!”  

Natasha is dressed to kill:  Black form-fitting top, short black skirt, black stockings and black leather boots with steel stiletto heels, packaging exotic, expressive beauty.  

Boris immediately bites the bait, eyes launching from his head, like Roger Rabbit.  Boris wants Natasha to remain, but her entrance is just a tease, and she rejoins our party for dinner in the wine cellar, reserved exclusively for us, illuminated by tall freestanding candelabras.

A brass plaque over the door says The Arivadze Cave, clueing us that Boris is a secret partner in this establishment (a notion cemented when we discover his pet dog is kept in a villa kennel).

To be sacrificed and eaten?

 A five-course meal is served with Chianti Classico reserve (produced in this very neighborhood), during which JL recounts the night terror he endured here, while orbs from our surreal bouncing assemble around us in the cellar.

It is midnight when we clink our final toast and tour the basement, ogling erotic art that becomes more wicked the deeper one delves into meandering basement rooms, in contrast to the ground floor, where the eclectic collection is more classic and respectable (though the dining room features visionary paintings akin to Icelandic art).

Combined with the erotic sculpture punctuating the grounds outside (seen next morning) and photo albums on the piano illustrating numerous female models who have passed through this retreat, Machiavelli’s old home has the feel of the mansion in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, where a sexually explicit and ritualistic masquerade party takes place, entry to which is gained only by a secret password, Fidelio.  

Returning upstairs, Natasha positions herself on a loggia, smoking a cigarette, while Rocky, Bullwinkle and I sip red wine, watching Boris get reeled into our honey trap.  

Within minutes, Natasha is sitting in the dining room with table-full of wily conspirators.

Thirty minutes later a waiter arrives with a bottle of house red wine, “Compliments of Mister Arivadze.”

He thinks he can trade us a bottle of wine for our angel (or devil)?

We don’t refuse the wine, but this effrontery precludes us from uncorking it, and we leave it on the table un-drunk, decamping to our communal loggia.

Lurking nearby, a solitary man puffing a cigar.  He lights another, even though it’s past one in the morning.

JL engages.  The stranger accepts chitchat, sticks to banalities.  Turns out he’s French, nothing to do with the Russian dinner party; he and his wife are the only other guests at the villa this evening.  

So he’s probably DST or DGSE–-French special services-–keeping tabs on whatever the Russians are doing, and he’s probably wondering what the hell we, the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, are doing.  

The Russians, he was expecting.  

Us?  Once he concludes CIA crashed the party it will complicate his report writing.

JL decides to check on Natasha by introducing himself to Boris, say thanks for the un-drunk wine.  He returns twenty minutes later with the bottle, now uncorked.  (Alas, we were still thirsty.)  “Natasha’s too close to them, man!” he says.  “They’re slobbering all over her.”

“It’s her job,” I say. “She knows what she’s doing.”

We continue to sip wine, having already consumed too much, as the morning hours tick onward, a dark, moonless Florentine night, the cold creeping into our bones, until, finally, just past three o’clock, we hear our vivacious Angel in the hallway.  

I cut around from the loggia to greet her and find a Russian goon (not Boris, more like an Igor) standing outside her door, insisting her suite is his own.

When he sees me, the stocky, gruff, crew-cut Igor backs off, grunts goodnight to Natasha, and creeps to his room adjacent to the loggia where, unseen, Van Stein and JL are sharing a joke, laughing.  

Believing himself to be its butt (perhaps the norm for him), Igor slams his door.  In case we do not get the point, he opens his door a few inches, glares out and slams it again.  

No subtlety, Russians.  Even when they poison someone, they use ten times the lethal dose, then accuse everyone else of aggressive, obstructive behavior.

Igor, says Anjelika, is supposedly a general who quickly decided that she "works in Division Three for Pavel Pavelovitch.”  

And maybe she does.

“How did you explain us?” I ask.

“Yes, they ask me,” says Angel.  “I tell them you are my three husbands:  a writer, an artist and a baron.”



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

THE ODYSSEY 48: MOON VALLEY



Painting:  Thomas Van Stein
Private Collection of RE



January 2007


News reaches us about a region of Tuscany called Valley of the Lunigiana (translation:  Moon Valley), where ancient folk—the Luni—worshipped the moon.   

We hurtle across the Atlantic; in January, as usual, but with a new twist:  No full moon.  In fact, no moon at all but, instead, that in-between phase (the new moon) separating full and crescent moons that translates to very dark nights when angels and devils come out to play.  

A bounce into esoteric realism.

We leave clear skies, sunshine and warmth, and enter full gloom: a London that bursts with people from everywhere, its population swelling each hour despite congestion charges, standing-room-only subway trains, leeching prices and an edginess without discrimination.

First stop:  The Providores, a kiwi hole-in-the-wall on Marylebone High Street, the finest cappuccino this side of Italy.  

A woman goes postal when a young man tries to walk out with her purse, over which he has draped his jacket, but his grip loosens so it falls to the floor.  

“You’re trying to steal my purse!” she shrills.

“No, I’m not,” he spits, surly indignation.

“You are, too!”

He snarls.

Patrons and staff watch, upper lips stiffened, as the beast beats a hasty exit.

The first devil.

London darkens about four o’clock.  

Van Stein, as always, is the decoy, a suspicious-looking character scouting angles while I utilize darkness and shadow to maze my way to Home-House, a private club, for surreptitious meetings, followed by another covert rendezvous in the old Churchill Hotel’s cigar bar, where an attractive pianist sings Carole King and James Taylor.  

Then a re-group with the artist for dinner at Hardy’s, followed by a long whiskey at the Art Bar on Walton Street and a longer walk to lower body temperature for sound sleep.  

Battling lag and constant motion, sleep will be an issue sooner or later.

Come morning, Starbucks on Baker Street at an outdoor table in dank drizzle to evoke a sense of place; watching, like Sherlock Holmes, commuters on foot; engaged by a torpid American traveling salesman, sitting nearby, awaiting a luggage shop to open so he can lug his wares (eye laser surgical equipment) around on wheels.  Or so he says.    

“Another spy,” whispers Van Stein.  “I’ve seen him before.”

We clean our tracks before wheeling to Luton Airport, quiet and deserted, reminding us why we visit Europe in mid-January.

EasyJet plunks us hard onto the tarmac at Nice-Cote-d’Azur, where the Det Collector stands by to motion us into Monaco.  

Enter JL, a new recruit to our commingling of madness.  

He has requisitioned a Mercedes with 007 plates for our imminent road trip to Moon Valley.  He could not understand our need for a violin, but found one anyway, so that Anjelika could pose with it for the artist.

Anjelika?  

A charismatic Russian “half-and-half” (part Chinese extraction) who had answered a classified ad I cannot recall placing.  

The first angel.  Or second devil, posing as an angel?

Indeed, I had placed an ad for interpreters but not in the journal Anjelika claims to have found it.   

A spy, perhaps; if no one else’s—I rationalize—mine to recruit.

On to Le Beefbar, where Van Stein meets Anjelika and approves my choice for violin model.  We also agree she should join us for whatever madness awaits in the Valley of the Lunigiana.

Thus, Angel with Violin is finally—that very night, the early hours—figuratively minimalized in oil on board.



THE ODYSSEY 47: YIN-YANK





October 2006


Seven weeks later, a harvest moon hangs over Butterfly Beach in Montecito.  

Van Stein and I are back where we started (near enough anyway):  Lucky’s, the patio, about a hundred paces from where we first met at Montecito Frame and Gallery sixty-three moons earlier.  

“So what was that all about?” I ask, probing the artist’s take on surreal bouncing. 

“All what?”

“The bounce, from Iceland to Marfa, and everything in betwixt.”

“Two words,” he says.  “Correct conjecture,” says Van Stein.

“Huh?”

“If you seek madness, you’ll find it,” says Van Stein.  “Get right out there on the edge.”

“That’s cute,” I say, “but not what I meant.  We took this journey in search of berserk, madness, creativity.  What did we come back with?”

“Orbs?”

“There’s got to be more.”

“More orbs?”

“No,” I say.  More than orbs.”

“We’ve now got Van Gogh, Dali and Dymphna, and James Dean hanging out with us every day. They’re here right now, waiting to see what happens next," says Van Stein.  "You want more than that?”

"Yup.  Where’s the elixir?  We need an ending.”

Van Stein looks at me like a hurt Chihuahua.  “Did you say ending?  We’ve only scratched the surface, a dry run.  I refuse to acknowledge this is over.”

“Why not?”

“Sambo’s sameness.”

“Who-what?”

“A term my father invented,” says Van Stein.  “Look, I’m back here, in this abundant place, where I still can’t afford to buy any of the abundance, and nobody around here knows anything.  They’re eating the same bland dish cooked the same way day after day.”

Van Stein and I had just come from the annual Santa Barbara Art Walk at the National History Museum, and found it little more than self-aggrandizement and mutual admiration, for and about local artists who don’t stretch themselves, content to enjoy membership in cozy artist associations and produce, at best, mediocre landscapes that stir neither emotion nor imagination, and, at worst, the kind of schlock you find at vanity galleries.

“But that’s what they’re comfortable with,” says Van Stein.  “They live in a box, a comfort zone, and if anyone threatens their security with new ideas, it’s circle-the-wagons time.  I’m sick of that.  But here I am again, smack dab in the middle of it.  Unless you‘re living life on the edge, you‘re taking up too much room.”

“You mean,” I say, “now that you’ve had a taste of madness, sanity is hard to figure?”

Van Stein sips from a glass of garnet-colored pinot noir.  “A lot of what we saw at the Art Walk tonight was sanity at its most rational.  We’ve seen the orbs.  They didn’t show themselves until they thought we were worthy, not until we’d done Iceland and St-Paul-du-Mausole and moved onto Dymphna in Gheel.  From then on, the orbs were along for the ride, egging us on…”

“No, Dali did the egging.”

“…Joining us in ever increasing numbers.  We’re not done.  This is just the beginning, not the end.”

“When we first met,” I say, “you thought this was the most wonderful place in the world.  And now, after the bounce, you sound seriously discombobulated.  That’s a really interesting paradox.  Because I’ve been moving all my life.  And for the first time since I left West Hollywood when I was five years, I’m feeling settled right here in Montecito.  You think this is a yin-yang thing?”

Van Stein weighs this out. “More like yin-yank.”  He dribbles onto fine white linen.  “If you don’t have the yin, you’ve got to yank.  What about moving to Marfa?”

“All I need to do is think about Marfa, just visualize it, and I recognize that the things people get anxious and stressed about in everyday life are totally ridiculous, and I’m immediately empowered by a serenity I‘ve never known until now.  No martini, nothing.  My own brain.  Just knowing I can go there is enough.  I’ve got this wildly incredible feeling that no further move is necessary, anywhere.  That‘s what the bounce did for me.”  I pause.  “But I’m ready to buy a Chihuahua, if that makes you feel any better.”

The artist shakes his head, not wanting to accept my elixir.  “It’s not over,” he says.   “We owe it to the orbs.  We’ve got to stay in motion.”

I sip pinot noir.  “Oh my God, you see that?”  

“An orb?”

“Two.”  I’m looking at the blonde hostess in a black evening dress as she sweeps across the patio into the bar.  “She’s the one!”

Van Stein follows my eyes.  “The yank or the yin?”

“The girl you have you paint playing a violin.”

“I don’t play the violin, and even if I did, I couldn’t play and paint at the same time.”

“No, no, no.  Don’t you remember?  We talked about this.  She’s playing the violin.  With nothing on.”

“A nude?”

“Yup.  Figurative minimalism.  Art stripped down to its most basic elements.  Think Marfa.  Just her, naked, with a violin.  Nothing else.”  I signal the waiter for a check.  “You do that, it’ll either win you the blue ribbon at next year’s Art Walk, or get you expelled from the Walk, the Oak Group, and all the other associations you belong to around here.”