Saturday, June 30, 2007

Painting With Fire

Like a reunion tour of middle-aged rock stars who now get more looped from standing up too fast than they ever did from drugs, we took it on the road this week as part of College Tour 2007. For the past three days, instead of sex, drugs, and rock and roll it was cheap motel rooms, hundreds of miles of driving and what felt like almost as much walking. (While we didn't get to trash our rooms, the shower rod and curtain in one of the motel rooms in which we stayed came crashing down completely on their own. My son James, who was in the shower at the time, somehow missed seeing the humor.)
Focusing on Pennsylvania, we saw Millersville, a fine and impressive medium-sized college, and Penn State, a respected college whose size would have to be reduced by half before you could call it enormous. At its present size, it has the area, infrastructure and population of a city. (It is, I'm told, the only campus in America with its own zip code. Not kidding.) Both colleges deserve great and public praise for the job they did with their tours, including successfully accomodating my wife's mobility problems.
The real purpose of this entry, though, is education of an entirely different kind. On our return trip we visited the Frank Frazetta museum in East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania. (The title of this entry is borrowed - ok, stolen - from a documentary done a while back on Frazetta's life and work.) Finding the museum (which is located on the breathtaking 75 acre Frazetta estate) in the first place is a test of how much you value the experience of going there; they do not advertise anywhere -it's all by word of mouth; their web site includes general directions but no address; and from where it's located having a street address probably wouldn't help anyone find it anyway. Despite this, visitors were there today from Hawaii, and in recent days from France and Bali.
The museum is not large in terms of its square footage, but it's thoughtfully (and efficiently) filled with about 80 or so wonderful paintings. The images, most (though not all) of which might be described as sword/sorcery/fantasy, jump off the canvas at you with an energy that's striking. (The paintings, of course, are copyrighted and can't be shown here, but for a great look at some of what's there, check out ).
As striking as the paintings themselves is the integrity with which the museum is run. A helpful gentleman keeps an eye on the exhibition space, and the gift shop is run by Ellie Frazetta, the charming and friendly wife of the great artist. I mentioned to her one of the things I thought about as I toured the space, that while it's not unusual to see exhibits of a particular artist's work, usually they're pieces purchased by the museum or a private collector. Every one of the paintings we saw could have been sold by the artist for enormous amounts of money and yet the Frazetta's preferred to keep the artist's gifts available for the world to enjoy. (Mrs. Frazetta told me of turning down an offer she'd received of $1,000,000 for a painting I'd mentioned was one of my favorites.) That would be great enough to hear from anybody. To find an artist of Frank Frazetta's stature maintaining that position is beyond refreshing, it's inspiring.
I'm not sure if an on-line journal officially qualifies as word-of-mouth but I'm hoping it does. This museum and the experience surrounding it was a real treat.
In an unrelated item, I saw today that Joel Siegel, who (among many other accomplishments) did movie reviews for Good Morning America and some other ABC-TV programs, passed away. I got to meet him years ago, interviewed him actually, for my high school newspaper when I was about 13 or 14. It was after a speaking engagement he did at the men's club breakfast at my local synagogue. He was a nice man, enduring my clumsy, insipid questions and total lack of interview skills with grace and kind patience. I hope somehow it's possible for him to know the adult version of that kid he was so gracious towards still remembers, and still appreciates.
In another unrelated item, there's a magazine here on my desk that has a picture of a priest on the cover. A few minutes ago I killed a fly on it. Do you suppose that means something?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

My Father's Way

This is my first Father's Day without my father. In January, after a lifetime of quiet strength, great dignity, and exemplary devotion to family, he found peace from his long, brave fight with his illnesses. He was a private man and probably would prefer that I not to put all of this out onto the Internet for all the world to see. And it's not that a lot of other people don't have stories to tell of a great father. They do. It's just that...this one's mine.


My father was a man of great, very gentle strength. As an adult, and a father now myself, I better appreciate how my father spent a lifetime working, sacrificing, doing what had to be done and never making a big deal out of it. Because to make a big deal out of it was not my father’s way.


Somewhere in the middle of my father being ill I was reminded of a song. (That’s fitting because for almost situation it was not only my father’s way to have a song, but a song that practically no one had ever heard of.) The song I was reminded of is an old song called Old Rivers, one of those spoken songs popular in the late 50's that the actor Walter Brennan had a big hit with. In the song, a young man is talking about a farmer he knew named Old Rivers. He said,


“Well, that old fellow did a heap of work.

Spent his whole life walking plowed ground….


He'd say, one of these days
I'm gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among the clouds
Where the cotton's high
And the corn's a-growin'
And there ain't no fields to plow.

My dad spent a great deal of his life doing a heap of work. As a man devoted to family, he exemplified a very high standard. There are many stories, but I’ll stay with this one, which is kind of a family favorite. We’d gone on a day trip down to the Cherry Hill (NJ) area, which is about an hour and a half south of where we lived. My sister, who was three or four at the time, left her purse at one of the places we'd gone, and she was very upset. It was just a kid’s pocketbook. Who knows if it even had anything in it? The next day, my father drove an hour and a half down, and an hour and a half back, just to retrieve that little pocketbook. Just as important, he never made a big deal out of it, seeing it as just something daddies do. (He was known to enjoy telling the story of the looks he got when he stopped for something to eat and walked in carrying a small pocketbook.)


It is simply impossible to discuss my father and not bring up his sense of humor. Not an over-the-top, hilarious, joke-telling sense of humor. It was more of a light-hearted way of avoiding whatever drama was trying to make its way into some situation. It showed up in the most amazing places. Several years ago my father survived being shot. A few weeks later, he called me at work, and the secretary who answered the phone was very concerned and asked how he was feeling. He said, “Not bad for a target.” It was his way of saying, “It’s not necessary to make a big deal out of it.” Again, my father’s way.


Four years as a soldier in World War II had a profound impact on him for the rest of his life. He talked about it quite a bit. My father worked hard to bring the character and values he’d learned in the army to everything he did. Toward the end, people who knew he was ill would ask me, “How’s your dad doing?” And sometimes I’d answer by saying, “He’s a good soldier.” And they understood what it meant as an answer to their question. They understood it was my father’s way.


Even as a gravely ill patient, he soldiered on. Managing household paperwork. Planning. Advising. All with quiet bravery. It was good for my father. And it was good for the rest of us, too. His courage made it easier for the people around him to be brave. Like all great leaders, he never said, “I’m a great leader.” He just led. And this, too, was very much my father’s way.


We're going to spend the rest of our lives discovering all the wonderful ways he’ll always be right here with us. And each time we do, we’re going to do something that will make him very happy. We’re going to smile.


So take your rest now, Dad, and have the peace you’ve worked so hard to earn. Be very proud of what you’ve done. Stand tall and climb that mountain. Walk up there among the clouds. Where the cotton’s high. Where the corn is growing. And where there ain’t no fields for you to have to plow.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Thought Salad

Like fraternal twins in the womb kicking the living daylights out of each other to get out (a habit I find they still have after almost 17 years), some possibly unconnected thoughts make their way into the world this morning.
Issue 1: Angels. Lately I've been spending time thinking about them. Not the winged variety, hauling harps all over the place. I mean the ones who show up in the form of friends, co-workers, people you meet, or don't meet and just pass somewhere and yet who still make an impact. They do something, or write something, or say something, and a light goes on and you realize you've just received something you needed someone to give you. They can come along suddenly, or can be in your life for years and one day the angel moment happens. Maybe the angel quality was there all along, waiting for its cue. Maybe it was sent from elsewhere right then and the person was just right to serve as the conduit. What I've noticed is that what angels do in your life is usually not big and obvious, though it can be. Most of the time it's not the size of what they do, it's the divinely perfect timing of it. And to those of my angels who are reading this, if you even know who you are, know that I am grateful.
Issue 2: A guy is willing to expose two continents to a rare, drug-resistant form of TB to be with the woman he loves. Who says there's no real romance anymore? Add a Rodgers and Hart score, choreography by Gene Kelly, and Oscar Levant in a supporting role as the sardonically witty CDC TB expert who's also the protagonist's father-in-law, and it would have made a great MGM musical.
Issue 3: It's good to see the right reverends Sharpton and Jackson following up on their promises to take on racist rap lyrics now that Imus is gone. I haven't seen an effort this intense since OJ's crusade to find the real killers.  
Issue 4: Yesterday I planted a tree. I'd been at the garden store and saw these little fern-type things that are supposed to grow to only about 15 feet. There's an area of our garden-in-progress that I hadn't yet decided what to do with, and this seemed a good solution. It didn't come with much in the way of instructions, but I'm figuring it's a tree, how hard can this be? The thing I noticed when I got home was that planting it felt different from anything else I've ever planted. There always was something spiritual for me about planting a garden anyway, but there was something downright sacred about planting a tree. It reminded me of that feeling when baking bread that it's beyond cooking, that you're getting to participate in a kind of holy process. Proof that it really is possible to feel centered and serene. And the timing of it was perfect. Those angels really do know what they're doing, don't they?