Friday, September 13, 2019

A LOVE AFFAIR WITH BARNS


I love barns: old and new, large and small, dairy, tobacco, and well kept or falling apart. I think I can honestly say I’ve never met a barn I didn’t like.  This love affair began long before they became subjects for my art. Barns and outbuildings were a part of life growing up on a farm. The barn was a playground for me and my friends, a place for hiding, building forts in the hay, for climbing, and for jumping out of lofts and second story windows. Our barn had little to offer architecturally. It was a plain 3-story structure with a tin roof.  The stone and concrete ground floor that supported the 2 framed floors above, housed the various livestock. The top floors were home to several hundred chickens. It wasn’t until I was old enough to accept the responsibility of daily chores that I developed a new appreciation of our barn. 

Milking the family cow was one of my assigned chores, a task I did under duress during the deep days of summer. The barn was hot, the air thick and heavy, and seated by her udder with my head resting on her flank I would be smacked in the face repeatedly by her tail flipping from side to side to remove the flies constantly settling on her. But on cold winter days it was an entirely different experience. I recall reading that a cow generates enough body heat to warm a small cottage. I don’t know if that is true, but I can say with certainty that the animal gives off heat. Sitting on that stool with my head pressed into her flank was like sitting in front of a heat vent.  There was no tail to worry about, and her teats warmed my hands better than any gloves could. Completing this experience were the kittens that seem to be found in every barn everywhere. Somehow they knew it was milking time and would gather around the milk pail in anticipation; I loved to watch them scramble over each other after I squirted them with a stream of milk. I think milking a cow one more time before my last breath will go on my bucket list.

In the years since leaving the farm I cherished the fond memories of a warm and intimate space, a docile cow, and a swarm of fuzzy kittens. Forty years later there was another barn in another place, with horses instead of cows and sheep. And once again I think of escaping the cold winter wind and relishing the warmth and the smells of the horses and straw in freshly cleaned stalls. (Note the focus on winter, and not the hot, sticky days of summer.) I should also mention that in this barn, my wife did ALL of the mucking...her choice. I got to enjoy the fruits of her labor.)

Beyond my personal experiences, I love barns for their architectural and historic qualities. I am drawn to the drama and the mood of a solitary barn, simple or elegant, sitting alone in an empty field, or the intimacy of a barn and several outbuildings, huddled together to create a family haven. I am especially fond of the rambling dairy barns, where one or more additions have been tacked on to the main structure, concerned only with function. The result? A mish mash of architecture and texture...much to my great delight. Looking at these rural icons, many of them now abandoned or a little more than storage facilities, I wonder about their stories, and the hopes and aspirations of the families they served when they were first conceived. I imagine the livestock in their stalls, cats milling about, and children running around, playing in the hayloft, the barns, elegant or simple, served a central role in the daily life of all members of the farm family.

It is sad to see so many of these wonderful structures fall into disrepair and treated with such little respect and appreciation for all that they have provided. Even the unpretentious tobacco barns with their simple lines and lack of any architectural flare stand as lonely reminders of a life that is quickly becoming only a memory.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

STRENGTH AND COURAGE


I admire men and women of who demonstrate their strength, courage and humanity in their behavior as well as their words. They:

Lift others up, rather than put them down.
Recognize the worth and value of ALL human beings.
Are willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses and failures.
Accept criticism and respect differing opinions.
Have the courage to apologize when one is due.
Are aware of their own shortcomings and strength.
Are not afraid to ask for help.
Know how to balance pride and humility.
Speak the truth (this is tough for all politicians)
Value people for who they are, and not their social and economic status.

Do not bully and call others demeaning names.
Do not need constant affirmation and praise.
Do not need to belittle and mock others to make them selves feel and look strong.
Do not need to lie.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Dangers of ignoring idealism.


I am recycling a column I wrote three years ago. I believe the Trump administration is affirmation of all that I've written.


IDEALISM

“It’s well written, but it’s idealistic” was the response to something I posted on my blog.  It may have been unintentional, but I sensed a dismissive tone to the remark, implying that idealistic ideas are nice, but they are unrealistic and have no place in today’s world, and pursuing them would be a waste of time and energy. That was several weeks ago, and that simple but provocative comment has remained lodged in my brain like a small irritant.

One dictionary’s definition of idealism includes the following: satisfying one's concept of what is perfect, existing only in the imagination, desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality, representing an abstract or hypothetical optimum, a person or thing regarded as perfect, and a standard of perfection - a principle to be aimed for.

What should we pursue as individuals and as a community if not the ideal? Should we make it our goal to achieve “it’s not the best but it will do”, being satisfied with second best?  As an artist I know what happens if I settle for “good enough”. The result will be even less than that.  When efforts are made to achieving second best, the results will usually be third or fourth best. Our goals, in all that we do, should be to reach for the very best. There is no guarantee it will be achieved, but without the effort we can be assured it never will be. The pursuit of mediocrity is shameful. We cannot afford to abandon idealism, not only in what we hope to achieve, but in our personal behavior.

The problem of course is, what is ideal, and who gets to define it. Clearly there are strong, conflicting opinions about this. Our country is harshly divided over political, social, and religious issues, and it is unrealistic to expect there can be universal agreement on them. But universal agreement is not, and should not be the goal. I believe the pursuit of idealism begins with each of us. The idealism I envision is not one of social and political conformity, but one grounded in individual attitudes and behavior. 

In my ideal world, we are all guided by the personal values that are universal and independent of any partisan domain: honesty, respect, civility, thoughtfulness, compassion, and a concern for the greater good. When enough of us consciously embrace and live these values, cultural and political disagreements won’t disappear, but they will lose their divisiveness and toxicity. 

The challenge we all face is to make “values” more than just a word, but a way of life.  With our words and behavior, we can pass them on to our children, and future generations. In addition, we must demand the same from our elected officials and hold them responsible when they fall short. In this ideal world when enough citizens pursue these values they will spread outward to others, and upwards to institutions and government. I believe that if we do this, we can make a difference in the lives of everyone, and contribute to improving the quality of our governing bodies.

The pursuit of the ideal is everyone’s responsibility.


Monday, February 18, 2019

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #32


ANOTHER VICTIM OF AGE or The Secret life of Walter Mitty
 


I have always enjoyed a rich fantasy life. As an only child growing up on a farm I was accustomed to being alone, either playing or doing daily chores.
Daydreaming, an older child’s version of “make believe”, was a way to combat boredom and become more than I was. Picking up stones from the driveway and batting them over imaginary fences with a piece of plaster lathing I became Mickey Mantle. Singing my way through five chicken coops while I gathered eggs transformed me into another Frank Sinatra. (I have no idea what my singing may have done to the egg production.). My heroic accomplishments in the first 18 years of life were nothing short of amazing. That small farm boy from South Jersey became the hero to fans all over America. And as I made my way through the years ahead my daydreams followed, adapting themselves to the changing circumstances. I became a star football player in college in spite of my size, a surviving doctor in a plane crash who saved the lives of other survivors, a famous artist living in NYC, or a victim of amnesia wandering around the country trying to survive, to name just a few of my fantasies. My retreat into these make believe worlds usually occurred when I was driving alone in the car for hours at a time, lying in bed unable to sleep, or waking up in the middle of the night worrying about ridiculous non-existent problems that only arise in the dark hours of the night and early morning.

I choose to believe that occasional daydreaming is a normal and common mental exercise that everyone engages in at one time or another.  I have no interest in learning otherwise. In fact I believe my occasional forays into the world of make believe have served me well, improving my psyche and mental health, in addition to fending off those useless night time worries. But to my great dismay, for the past few years it has become increasingly difficult to retreat into these fantasy worlds, and I’m convinced it has to do with my age.

Regardless of the absurd plots, all of my daydreams have had an element of possibility to them, albeit quite miniscule, and they were all age appropriate. Now, approaching my 79th birthday, it is more challenging to come up with a heroic plot for someone this age. Oh I still do it, but far less often, and with more modest accomplishments. This is one affect of ageing that I never anticipated. I feel blind-sided by it.

I shared this with my wife, telling her I was thinking of writing about the diminishing fantasy life in the 8th decade. She quickly suggested that I avoid using the word fantasy, since it has acquired some carnal implications. I told her I was aware of that and planned to refer to “Walter Mitty” moments. She gave me a blank look, clearly having no idea who Walter Mitty was. When I explained he was a character who was always daydreaming in a short story by James Thurber and made famous portrayed by the late Danny Kaye in the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, she offered that most people would not know that, and said I was really showing my age. Wow, that really helped.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #31 Looking back to look ahead


   Looking back to look ahead
1-30-18


1950 - Fifth Grade class photo

The relentless process of ageing finds expression in our bodies and our minds. I’m not sure which I find more challenging to deal with, the physical or the mental expressions. Recently I’ve been questioning everything I have always thought about myself, looking back on my life with a critical and skeptical eye, questioning my choices and behavior over the many years. Was I a spoiled only child? How did my friends and my cousins see me? Was I so centered on my own interests and goals that I ignored the needs and problems of others, especially my parents? And as an adult, have I been less than honest with myself regarding my relationship with others, and in my assessment of my art and my ambitions?

These are some of the questions I’ve been struggling with in recent weeks. I don’t have answers yet, but I expect they will eventually make themselves known. I also expect the answer to each of them will be yes and no, and I will come away from this enterprise with a better understanding of myself, both then and now.

The eighth decade began with an intense desire to go back and reconnect with the past, through family, friends, old classmates, and acquaintances. Each connection would trigger a new memory and/or bring a fleeting flush of excitement over hearing a voice or seeing a face after 50 years or more. It appears to be ending with the same desire for retrospection, but with a different focus. Now the goal is to reach a deeper understanding of the life I’ve lived, its purpose and meaning, to me and to my family and friends. I seek an honest, unvarnished understanding of myself, one I can accept and embrace with the hope it will enhance the quality of my remaining years.

In spite of all the attention to the past, my primary concern is the quality of the remaining years of my life. I want them to be filled with the same meaning and purpose as those that came before. Artists do not retire. They may rest a bit, and move a little slower, and perhaps walk away from the commercial community, but the words, the art, and the music never cease. I believe I have something worthwhile to contribute to my family, friends, and community, how ever modest it may be. It’s complicated, but I believe an honest understanding of my past is critical to the work I have yet to do.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #30


78 and counting – March 1917


I began writing about the process of aging nine years ago as I approached my 70th birthday.  Reflecting on the arc of my experience, a pattern seems to be emerging suggesting an evolution in my response to this inevitable process. This 8th decade can be thought of as a tunnel we must pass through, a little dark and scary in the beginning, but gradually becoming lighter and easier, with the promise of relief at the end. We enter knowing we are still young, and leave knowing we are old.

Some observations from my first 8 years in the tunnel:

1.     A combination of amusement and disbelief that I could be 70 years old.
2.     Confronting the question – What defines old age?
3.     A growing interest in my past – childhood, family, memories
4.     Reaching out to old friends and family
5.     Struggling with my work and with ambition, aspirations, and expectations
6.     Recognizing the physical and mental implications of ageing
7.     Eventually finding old friends becomes less important
8.     Slowly seeing and accepting myself as “old”
9.     Aging gradually transitions from an abstraction to reality.
10. Growing appreciation for the role of fate in determining our future, (There but for the grace of God go I.) and the opportunity to make it this far.

Aging is primarily a physical process. Remaining “young at heart” does

Saturday, December 15, 2018

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #29


COMPRESSING TIME
October 2016


At age 77 I am aware of how compressed the remainder of my life is becoming and the tension this creates within me. There is still work to be done, aspirations to be met, and lofty dreams that refuse to acknowledge a limited future.

The problem is not that I have not done all that I set out to do, but that I continue to discover new paths that I want to travel, and more work that I want to do. My art is slowly improving, but there is so much more to learn.  Forty years ago I promised myself, and my patients, that I would strive to create the best work I am capable of doing, and I have not yet done that…I know I can do better. I recently had the opportunity to see some outstanding art that has inspired me to push the boundaries of my own work. At the same time I saw several pastel paintings of mine that were completed about 15 years ago, and realized I wanted to return to that medium that holds so much promise.

And there is more. I want to write. I am enticed by the satisfaction and fulfillment of conveying an idea, a message, or a memory, using words instead of paint. Writing has become as important to me as my art. Beyond the craft of writing, is the desire to share my story and the lessons life has taught me.  I believe I have something to offer, in spite of the doubts and insecurities that constantly hang over me. 

When I look into all the tomorrows through my rose colored glasses I see books and essays waiting to be written and paintings to be painted, a daunting challenge because I still need my quiet time for reflection as well as my afternoon nap. So much yet to do – so little time – so much insecurity and doubt – so much stress – and I would not trade it for anything. I consider myself fortunate to be right where I am.