Sunday, March 31, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 31 March

Justin Slays His Dragon

Good Morning Justin…

It’s Spring and I’m beginning to think baseball, once again.  Today I was thinking all the way back to the 1960 World Series.  Fifty years ago these games were played in the daytime.  The Fall Classic brought work to a standstill, at least at our school.  I was in the sixth grade and a television was wheeled into the classroom for us to watch.  It was game seven with the score tied at nine going into the bottom of the ninth.  The Pittsburgh Pirates were coming to bat against the perennial favorites, the hated New York Yankees.  The Bronx Bombers was a powerhouse team of all-stars, including Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.  Yankee fans were so accustomed to being reigning world champions that they looked upon winning as their birthright.  The fact that the lowly Pirates managed to fight their way to this tie in game seven went way beyond anyone’s expectation of them.  They were a team of no names.  You’d gladly trade most any Pirate baseball card for most anyone, somewhere else.  They were a bunch of guys reserved for the bottom of most any rubber band wrapped deck of bubblegum cards.  From this depth of anonymity was first to bat, Bill Mazeroski.  Who the heck is Mazeroski?  Looking ahead in the line up I came to realize it wouldn't get any better than this. We’re doomed. Of course, the name Bill Mazeroski has been forever burned into my memory because of what happened next.  Mazeroski solidly cracks his pitch over the left field wall for a walk off, series winning home run.  The classroom broke out in a pandemonium of cheers and of chairs being knocked over as boys erupted from their carefully assigned seats.  There was no instant replay in those days but we could savor the stunned looks of the ancient Casey Stengel and his crew of pin-stripped matinee idols.  Time to hang up the cleats, pick up your final paycheck as you leave the building, and go into cold storage until the first thaw of Spring training come next year.

I sincerely felt at the time that this historic World Series moment was one of the greatest of my short life.  It would be decades before I would feel its equal in sports.  Maybe I never have. 

One guaranteed annual thrill for me came in June with the last day of school and three full months of summer vacation ahead of me.  That was twelve weeks where every Wednesday was the equal of a Saturday and Sunday night didn’t mean homework to be done in time for school the following Monday morning.  It was 84 days where you could assume each having 16 waking hours and being able to stay up as late as I pleased most every night.  That comes to 1,344 consecutive conscious hours uninterrupted by a single classroom lecture on anything from verb conjugation to a host of algebraic properties to inane poetry on the metamorphosis of a butterfly.  If you limit yourself to 10 hours of television viewing a week it would take you over two and a half years to watch 1,344 hours of television.  Thinking in these terms you can see why I felt Summer Vacation was almost forever.  There was no equal to summer.  I was in my natural element.

The final countdown of days before Fall classes resumed was a time of mind games I played to soften the letdown of returning to regularly scheduled classes.  One week remaining became the equivalent of Spring Break.  Three days became a weekend with an attached holiday.  The final Sunday night was pretty depressing but, at least, there was no homework due.  I suppose I could say that once I arrived for the first school day I was heartened by the renewal of friendships with classmates and invigorated by the challenge of a new academic year.  If you want to believe that, go ahead.  It’s probably a harmless mythology.  I will say, though, that the first day was never as dreadful as I anticipated.  Day one always had a certain charming novelty about it.  Even day two might seem OK.  It was the endless days of forced march learning that followed, quickly turning into weeks, then months.  Each hour of each day I tried to go as long as I possibly could before having to look at the clock.  Only seven minutes.  It felt easily like twelve.  Fortunately there were always girls to watch.  They kept me going.  Patty in the forth grade.  Roberta in the fifth and sixth.  Shirley in the seventh, later Diane, and so on. 

So how has life turned out for me since?  I would have to say that I barely crawled across the finish line at sixty-two and immediately applied for whatever retirement was due me.  I make ends meet.  And, indeed, I am again in my natural element.  Every Wednesday once more feels like Saturday and Sunday night has no particular meaning, what so ever.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 24 March

Jacob's Toon

Good Morning Jacob…

My last conversation with you, some years ago now, I said you were an artist.  I felt that because of how it is you experience life.  Sure, your drawings were a lot better than anything I could have done at your age but that is undoubtedly true of many people that grew up to be office workers in tight cubicles.  They had a draftsman’s talent but not the needed emotional gift that must accompany it if one chooses to discover art of their own making.  I cannot know the course in life that you choose but you will never be rid of your artistic temperament, even if you were to wish it away.  It can be most inconvenient.

I’m working on a picture that does not bend to my will.  Maybe I wanted to prove to myself I could do something I have never before been able to achieve.  I wanted to create something beautiful.  It isn’t going to happen.  I don’t know how unless I purchase a paint by numbers kit.  Grotesque faces and harsh colors are as stubbornly persistent elements to my pictures as cockroaches are to a boarding house.  I just hope the treats I serve up will somehow compensate for the critters crawling about. 

Life doesn’t get any better than this.  I could take the clothes off a mannequin at Nordstrom’s and walk out the door wearing them but I would still be me.  The trees I see, the people I view and the imagery I would find in the clouds overhead would all still be processed by these same two eyes and brought to some kind of meaning with this one solitary brain encased in this egg of a head that belongs exclusively to me.  I have no recourse but to exist harmoniously with myself. 

I hope you are well.  I wish your life to be as happy as possible.  Never give in to your darkest moments.  This last point is the most crucial lesson published in the survivor’s guide to living.  In your deepest valleys remind yourself with conviction that there are always better times ahead.  The most powerful hurricane reaps terrible destruction but it is merely passing through.  What is wrecked is rebuilt, often replaced with something better.  Our greatest talent is our insistence on the continuance of life… your own and those of others.

Quick!  What is the shape of a joyous thought?  Now take time to create it and show it to someone else.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 17 March


Good Morning Jack…

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, Jack.  I figure you are one quarter Irish so you definitely have that particular advantage over me.  I’m only Irish if I don an article of green on this sainted day.  Pass the corn beef and cabbage, please, if you might and God willing.

Saturday I watched a French film titled My Night at Maud’s.  What order is there to life if we don’t make an attempt to provide it on our own behalf?  I can’t answer that question.  I’m always trying to live in an ordered environment.  I’m comfortable only if I can rationalize what goes on about me.  Inexplicable events may well shock me and leave me disorientated.  Even if I were to escape injury by a sudden explosion in the street nearby, I would be initially dazed and bewildered by events.  My mind would work madly to regain its sensibility.  It’s like our consciousness contains a gyroscope to always return us to right side up in our thinking.  Damage the gyroscope and we must be institutionalized for our own protection. 

We take our reasoned thought processes for granted, don’t we.  Imagine how terrifying it must be for those unable to distinguish reality from illusion.  You've maybe run across people on the street having a heated conversation when, in fact, no one is around.  They often appear to be homeless.  They haven’t money.  Would you trust someone to a job when they seemed confused by what was real?  A stomach ulcer is painful.  A heart murmur can limit our physical activity.  Damage to the organ that is the brain can make us behave erratic, make us potentially dangerous to ourselves or others.  How many damaged minds have obtained weapons and attacked people while thinking they were ridding society of invading legends from Hell.  Such a condition is an illness no less than cancer but the individual will be reviled so long as there is memory of him.  If there is a measure of fairness in life it is only because people wish it so. 

Have you heard any good jokes lately?  How much better life seems after we've had a good laugh.  A joke is maybe like an expectorant used to expel some nagging anxiety that’s wedged itself within us.  Why do people circulate gruesome humor following a terrible tragedy?  I think it is just the opposite of callousness.  We are treating a wound suffered by our emotional being.  Sometimes the wound is too great and only a long process of grieving will suffice to mend the tear.  In grief, though, always a scar is left.

I didn’t mean to brood today.  Sometimes it can’t be helped.  When all else fails, turn to thinking about Spongebob Squarepants.  He’s so ridiculous.  Just saying the name cracks me up.  That’s truly powerful medicine.  You know what’s really funny?  You see someone wearing a business suit and appearing very sober, even authoritative.  They see you, walk up to you, shake your hand, introduce themselves, and then do something totally unexpected and absurd like stick an olive up their nose.  They never change their demeanor.  They just continue conversing about the stock market as though everything is as it should be.  It’s all the funnier because now I’m confused.  Maybe this isn’t supposed to be funny – like laughing at a funeral… which makes me want to laugh all the harder.  Finally, I can’t help myself and I start snorting and carrying on with laughter to the point where I fear I’m going to lose control of all my bodily functions.  The comedian with the olive moves in now for the kill.  He continues with his straight face delivery hoping that I truly do lose control and, possibly, wet myself.  Comedians can be cruel that way.  They will definitely show no mercy.  They are aiming for the ultimate prize.  There’s the smile in response to something funny, then a chuckle, followed by laughter, hearty laughter, side-splitting laughter and, finally, self humiliation caused by uncontrolled laughter.  Anyone capable of producing the ultimate response to humor should be required to wear a warning label, advising people with weak bladder control to stay out of earshot of such individuals.  Of course, even out of earshot they remain dangerous, depending on what it is you see them stick up their nose.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Rubens and Zen Gardening

Peter Paul Rubens

I suppose it’s too much to ask but I was hoping one of the world’s leading art museums would offer me a very large painting by Peter Paul Rubens, the 17th century Flemish nude master.  It would have to be very large, with several large naked women running about and a man mounted on a galloping horse sweeping one of the women up, her legs attractively kicking and her arms flailing as would any maiden’s when filled with anxiety.  Her red lips are breathlessly parted and her pink breasts flushed and heaving in a manner that remains ladylike throughout the entire ordeal. 

Yes, I think this nicely describes the oil painting that fills one wall of my living room.  There’s going to be something of a problem getting it through the front door.  It’s far too big.  But I refer you to the tried and true rule of thumb – where there’s a will there’s a way.  We’ll leave that problem to the experts.  Once installed there’s an awkward furniture situation.  I don’t want anything blocking one inch of my Rubens.  This requires an afternoon of moving everything about.  It’s almost too cramped to get around but I’ve solved everything except where I’m going to put the big screen TV.   The china cabinet needs to go to the garage.  The lady of the house naturally objects but I remind her that we all have to make sacrifices.  

Of course, now that the cabinet is situated near the water heater there’s the problem of having no place for the mower and lawn tools.  The obvious solution is to replace the yard with a vast Zen garden, complete with sand, gravel and a large rock.  A quick store run and I’ll pick up a nice bench for quiet contemplation of my rock. 

I love my rock.  I love my painting.  I sit for hours just admiring my Rubens.  I must invite friends over.  Having no idea what is in store for them they are, needless to say, astounded by the magnificent painting once they step through the door.  It is truly overwhelming.  The wife makes refreshments and we treat ourselves to baloney on cracker hors d’oeuvres as we chat excitedly about our marvelous good fortune.  How does he create those extraordinary skin tones?  It’s a pity more people aren’t intimately familiar with the brushwork of Rubens. 

Friends ask me how much I pay to insure this masterpiece.  I don’t know.  It’s all paid for by the museum as part of the deal.  Anyway, can you imagine a burglar trying to get it through one of our windows and then hauling it off in the back of his pickup?  We also have one of those house alarm systems where someone yells at any intruder. 

“Hey, get your hands off the painting!  Make sure you lock the door as you leave.” 

I accidentally set the alarm off once and that’s exactly what they say.  Believe me, it’s no fun being yelled at.  I phoned and got it all straightened out.  We had a good laugh and the cops couldn't stop talking about the magnificent painting.  What kind of club do you have to join to have something like this installed in your house?  I told them all it took for me was a nicely written letter.  I find I can get a lot done if only I have the proper attitude.  It’s something we all need to keep in mind.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to My Daughter
Sunday, 10 March


Good Morning Jessicca…

Today was clear, sunny and just about warm.  It seems like winter has passed and, for me, almost like a flu has lifted.  I celebrated in small ways, opening windows, shedding several pounds of clothes when I took the dog for a walk and daydreaming about squirting kids with a hose.  I feel like I’m on a roll.  Friday I finished a drawing.  Thursday I went to the theater to see Silver Lining Playbook with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.  I think it’s supposed to be a drama.  It does have some pretty intense scenes.  I came away thinking of it, though, as the best romantic love story since Shakespeare in Love.  In fact, I might have liked it better than Shakespeare.  It’s close.  Bradley Cooper was very good but Jennifer Lawrence was an absolute knock-out in her role.  I’d bet serious money you've already seen it so I won’t dwell on the story.  I just came away thinking it was the best chick flick in my memory.

Sarajevo, detail
What a relief to find there is a joyous side to love.  Lately I’ve been feeding on a diet of Bergman and Strindberg, northern Europeans with a deep melancholy when it comes to relations between the sexes.  What’s with these Swedish guys, anyway?  OK, I can’t say I don’t know what they are talking about but I still enjoy a day where sunshine not only breaks through the clouds but absolutely burns the sky clear of any dark thoughts.  It’s good to occasionally feel 23 when you know darn well you’re 64.  It’s great seeing a young actress like Jennifer Lawrence light up the screen playing someone complex, vivacious, troubled, fiery, conniving, loving and stunningly beautiful in one huge hay-maker of a movie role.  Forget my cholesterol, stiff joints and sclerotic heart, for me, here was a joyous outside the body experience.  I think I already mentioned Bradley Cooper and De Niro were very good, as well.  They were.

It was a fun movie.  I had a good time.

Sarajevo, detail

Yeah, so I did a drawing.  I call it Sarajevo basically because it’s an enjoyable word to let roll off my tongue.  It’s got all these brilliant yellow and red lines, cutting tight jagged corners and, more or less, filling this sky that has people in it where you wouldn't think they should be inhabiting but they seem oblivious to it all because they are kind of like Zen stick figures too absorbed by being lifted away from the incredible grimy strife that dominates existence down below.  Then there’s maybe this underworld that has its own flavor of a watery type serenity, if you don’t mind drowning and sinking deep beneath any form of human memory, written, oral or otherwise.  I say maybe because I don’t really know.  I don’t understand it because, probably, there isn't anything at all to understand.  It’s just what I decide to do when I have the free time and some paper free to fill with whatever percolates to my brain’s surface, gets digested and slides down my right arm to my hand where it drips into my pen and falls in stringy lines across the page.  That’s one way of putting it.  I doodle.  That’s more accurate and wonderfully succinct. 

Sarajevo, detail

I’m writing this while it is still Saturday.  It’s always been my favorite day of the week.  Someone is running their lawnmower.  That brings back memories that go all the way back to my being a kid – a television addict, undiagnosed, but clear to anyone with two eyes and a brain.  There wasn't anything I wouldn't watch.  I started each day starring at the TV test pattern, waiting for Channel Ten to officially sign on for another brilliant broadcast day of whatever it was that would preoccupy my mind for thirty minutes segments at a time.  Speaking of time, mine is about up.  Don’t forget to patronize the advertisers listed to the right of my letter.  They helped to bring this email to you for free.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Knowledge and Human Identity

Piet Mondrian - Composition for No. 1

The procession of successive generations through varied civilizations has reaped thousands of years of accumulated human experience recorded as written knowledge, a rising foundation of understanding from which all future advancement is built.  One extraordinary result of this process of intellectual growth, beyond the assimilation of vast new libraries of information and their attendant concepts, is the expansion of hitherto unrealized capacities involving human reason and associated mental powers. 

A biologically modern human, equal in potential with any human of today, but living tens of thousands of years ago would have no inkling of his power to read a bewildering array of abstract symbols as easily as hearing the spoken word or that he possesses an enormous capacity for absorbing vast amounts of information and translating them into an understanding of general concepts or that he has the ability to perform highly technical skills demanding painstaking precision and concentration.  These appreciations would never be know to primitive man because he had yet to develop within a society capable of investing enormous time and resources into his mental development.  The fascinating possibility of unleashing new human mental potential still exists as civilization’s acquisition of knowledge picks up its already torrid pace.

All biological organisms respond in various degrees to their surrounding environment.  More complex animals, particularly vertebrates, are capable of learning and retaining particular pieces of information.  They familiarize themselves with their surroundings and they learn to locate themselves in relation to their home, their food source and areas of possible danger.  They learn survival tasks.  They identify other individuals.  They do not appear capable of understanding concepts.  The understanding that all animals are born has no baring on survival.  Prey is to be eaten and there is no need to think beyond the fact that it is food.  All animals respond to fear but, beyond that, it is unlikely any animal other than man considers the certainty of their own inevitable death.  Life as a concept is an unnecessary consideration for an animal to exist.  A wolf, a deer, a hawk considers its present circumstance in regards to need, urges, opportunity and danger and then acts accordingly.  Who am I?  What meaning is there to existence?  These aren’t questions they likely entertain.  What survival benefit is there to such an inquiry? 

When did we as a human animal form first arrive at this point of self-inquiry?  Is there the germ of philosophical question in the face of a zoo gorilla?  What Darwinian evolutionary motivation is involved in the search for meaning in existence?  Is the concern for meaning associated with the elemental desire for the survival of self?  Yes.  Obviously human consciousness has crossed a bridge and entered a realm where physical survival has manifested itself to a level of concern for individual identity.  We have moved beyond an instinct for physical preservation to developing a sense that our sovereign existence is rooted in a unique individual identity of greater value than our corporal body of tissue, nerve and bone.  Our emotional response to being confronted by a hungry lion would be that of a deer – a flight to survive.  The deer, though, does not experience our concept of self.  It probably has little, if any, self awareness as we understand it.  As a member of the animal kingdom we seem uniquely self conscious.  As Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  We regard ourselves as a self-evident proposition.  It is one of the few certainties of our existence.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 3 March

Chocolate Ribs for Justin

Good Morning Justin…

Can you believe baseball season is nearly upon us?  What do you think the Red Sox’s chances are this year?  The Yankees are getting old.  It could be neck and neck for the race to the top in the American League East.  You’ve been a Sox fan since forever.  I remember one day when your sister, Jessicca, told you Manny Ramirez had been traded from Boston.  Oh, no, not Manny!  You couldn’t stop crying even when she told you she was only kidding.  You were no more than three at the time, or so it seems.  You’ve always been the kid with the big heart and you probably still are.  The last time I saw you we were throwing the football around with your brother Jack and you had a big sauce stain on your T-shirt from where a glob of spaghetti dropped from your fork on the way to your mouth.  Big deal.  You didn’t care.  People get all excited over nothing things like that.  You would have worn it to church if your Mom would let you.  That wasn’t going to happen, though.  She’s checking you – shirt tucked in, even in back?  Your belt isn’t twisted, is it?  Pull up your zipper.  Left shoe not tied.  What a hassle.

Here’s another memory that just came to me.  When you were a little guy you used to draw just the way I did.  It was making sure you drew quick, a kind of short-hand.  People were only slightly more than stick figures and things like planes were drawn just well enough that you knew what they were.  It was all about getting the exciting story down on the paper.  You even had the same squint I had when I drew and made noises with your mouth that fit the unfolding story as it was drawn.  You were so absorbed.

Actually I thought I drew pretty good when I was a kid.  Your brother Jacob, though, is the guy that can really draw and from a very early age, too.  His trains and robots and cartoon characters could run circles around what I did.  He has such an imagination.  His topics were fanciful.  Yours were like mine – more serious in nature.  You just can’t be goofing around when the whole world is at stake.  Your drawings were always going to save us from the bad guys. 

I started drawing again.  It began with drawing a picture for Jessicca’s birthday last month.  I called it Rodger Dodger Jessicca.  It’s filled with pent up energy – like if you squeezed a powerful, stiff coiled spring into a tight little box.  I don’t know where that idea came from.  I wasn’t thinking about it.  That’s just how the drawing came out.  I’m midway through a second drawing that has similarities with Rodger Dodger.  I tell myself I want to draw something cool and abstract.  I’d like to do something mature, a real adult theme.  It doesn’t seem to happen.  Here I am mashing crayons right into the paper, again.  I should probably smack some baseballs into the outfield or something before I start drawing.  Actually, I don’t think that would help.  You just have to carry through with an idea and see where it takes you.  Eventually the idea runs out of steam.  You try to draw one too many pictures of a theme and it begins to look like a flat tire hobbling down the road.  So you wad it up and play basketball with the waste basket.

It’s Sunday.  Time for church.  Time to throw on something spaghetti stained and slip into the back seat before Mom catches you.  Cross your fingers and hope Jack won’t squeal you out.