The Forbidden Cardinal

“Life’s good. . . and not fair at all. . .”–Lou Reed

The Forbidden Cardinal


My back yard gets no shortage of cardinals, male and female.  All you have to do is put out black sunflower seeds in the feeder and they’re on it like white on Richie Daley.  Though the red males are the ones people “ooh” and “ahh” over, I’ve always thought the females were the real beauties.  Sometimes they look almost gold-yellow in the sunlight with rough russet-patches of red here and there. . . they’re lovely.

I made a yellow Cardinal as I was listening to the radio; a lot of stuff about Michael Jackson.  I was in New York when the news of his death broke and I thought about how much I loved the Jackson 5 as a kid.  We were the same age and I always felt like he never got to  grow into a fully-formed man.  There is a Jeff Koons sculpture of Jackson that portrays him and his chimpanzee, Bubbles, which now seems prescient; Michael Jackson as a kitschy, cultural fetish-object.  It feels like he never stood a chance; that he was infantile by cultural definition and walking around dressed like Captain Crunch as a grown man, his last  moments of grace being the phenomenon of “Thriller”, 25 years ago.  He seemed a confused man sexually and  racially and who became the butt of cruel jokes most often levied by black comedians like Chris Rock and Sinbad.   Of course, Jackson’s predilection for companionship with young children was troubling and always suspect, but there is a case to be made that  this man was never allowed entry into the adult world and was most comfortable being a child.  How many adults do you know of, that need a giraffe of their own?

The memorial  was weird and other-worldly, and in some cases bordered on the pornography of grief with self-serving “testimonials” bordering on the grotesque and politically opportune.  It made me think about how rare talent like Jackson’s is.  He could sing, he could dance, and he could craft a song like nobody else.  He was a genius at what he did, and he never stood a chance.

My friend Steve Griff died a year ago.  He wasn’t famous.  He spent most of his adult life working a mind-numbing and mundane job as a baker at Nabisco.  He was an immensely talented artist whose gifts were discovered mostly after his death.  He spent most of his adult life battling an addiction that eventually killed him.  It was hard for Steve; he had 7 years clean and was making the best work of his life.  He’d retired from Nabisco and finally had some time to make the marvelous drawings he made.  And then his addiction resurfaced and it killed him. He was one of the kindest people I ever knew.  He loved New Orleans and was to be part of the Biennial crew that accompanied me there.  Before he left my studio every Sunday he would smile his lop-sided smile and tell me, “Tread lightly, brother, you and me are already on our 9th life.”  He never stood a chance.

I learned a long time ago that there was no right or wrong way to grieve.  And that life isn’t so much determined by the right and wrong, so much as it is the consequences.

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