Carol, Goodbye

There we were – my wife Sandy and I – zooming westward along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two Fridays ago. We were on our way to Ohio, its Cleveland area, for a reunion of some members of Sandy’s side of the family. We see a few folks from her clan regularly, but not so for the others. The occasion promised to be a somewhat reflective one, in that it was a gathering in honor of Carol, one of Sandy’s and my cousins who, in her mid-60s, died several months ago in Arkansas. There, for decades, she had made her home with her husband Mike. Carol’s brother lives with his wife near Cleveland, and it was said brother and his spouse, Steve and Carolyn, who organized the celebration of Carol’s life.

The gathering turned out to be wonderful. Thirteen folks, including Sandy and I, made up the group. Everyone was glad to be with one another. Lots of hugs and kisses were exchanged during the three days we were together. Lots of good food was consumed. Happy chitchat glided effortlessly through the air. And on Saturday, in memory of Carol, we all piled into our motor vehicles and drove to downtown Cleveland to attend a Cleveland Indians baseball game, the signature event of the family members’ weekend.

When it comes to Carol, only one thing could have been more appropriate than our visiting the Indians, and that would have been our attendance at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Carol, as big a baseball fan as I’ve ever known, grew up in the Philadelphia region and at an early age became infatuated with the Phillies. That infatuation gripped her for the rest of her life. But through her brother, another baseball aficionado, she came to love the Indians too. During visits to Steve and Carolyn over the years she went to a good number of Indians games. If only she could have been with all of us that recent Saturday. In her element, she’d have had a blast.

45 minutes before game time
45 minutes before game time

I was pretty well stunned by the beauty of Cleveland’s  stadium, Progressive Field, when it came into view moments after I walked out of the parking garage. Intimate, with narrow outfield foul territory areas, it was modestly populated at 3:30 PM, forty-five minutes before game time. Hordes of fans soon would arrive. The outfield grasses, green as can be and meticulously groomed, looked magnificent. The enormous scoreboard flashed excitedly with bright-colored messages. With no rain in sight, the day held much promise.

Steve and Carolyn had gone whole hog by renting a suite for the family. I’d never been in a baseball suite before, and, you know, I have to say that it ain’t a bad way to go. A guy could get used to it. There was a buffet area within the room, a frig stocked with beer and a big screen TV for those who chose to watch the game artificially. And, best of all, a clean bathroom.

Photo taken from within the suite

And there was a door that led out to the open air, to a balcony of sorts that held a dozen chairs. The suite was halfway down the third baseline, and from the balcony the view of the game was fine. As were its sounds. I was amazed by the high decibel level of pitched balls crashing into catchers’ mitts. Man, pitchers these days throw hard. Harder, I think, than ever before. Boom, boom, boom, indeed.

Shadows enter the infield!
Shadows dominate the infield!

Well, the game passed pleasantly, though the final outcome wasn’t favored by Cleveland rooters, the Minnesota Twins winning the battle by the score of four runs to two. Like most of the family members I paid only half-attention to the game, spending much of the time wandering into the suite for food and beverage or talking about this or that with one person or another. Or fixating on the heavy, menacing shadows that began to cover the infield midway through the proceedings. How a batter can see a ball well enough to hit it under those shadowy conditions is way beyond myopic me. Carol, though, would have watched the action on the field with an eagle eye. You have to if you’re going to document the step-by-step developments throughout a game on a scorecard, something that few people know how or would want to do. Carol, though, knew how, and did. She was a true lover of the game.

Now, there was much more to Carol’s life than baseball. She was someone of wide mind and interests. But baseball is what many of us who knew her think of when we think of Carol. I mean, in Arkansas she subscribed to a special major league baseball television channel so that she could watch Phillies games. And at family gatherings it wasn’t unusual for her to be wearing a Phillies jersey.

It was fitting, therefore, that a few hours after the game ended, back at Carolyn’s and Steve’s home, everyone adjourned to a large room in which a piano resided. Steve and Carolyn possess excellent musical talent. And Mike, though not in their class music-wise, is a free-spirited singer, liable to burst into song at any given moment. Carolyn sat down at the piano and Steve placed his violin on his shoulder. Their young-adult son, also in possession of musical gifts, picked up a violin too. Next thing you knew a most rousing version of Take Me Out To The Ball game was under way, Carolyn hitting the keys hard and exuberantly, Mike singing with startling gusto and the two violinists fiddling away like their lives depended on it. Everyone else in the room was singing or humming along, and when the song reached its conclusion they burst into loud applause. It was by far the best rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game that I’ve ever heard.

Another good person has left the planet. Carol, goodbye. We miss you.

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Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh: In Memory Of My Father

Since April 2015, the month in which I began to blog, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on these pages, a fact that pretty well blows my mind. I doubt if I churned out that much product during my high school and collegiate careers combined. Luckily I’ve enjoyed doing the writing, and plan to keep on truckin’.

As Father’s Day 2016 approached I wondered what new article, in memory of my father, I might compose. After some thought I decided to republish the essay that I penned for last year’s Father’s Day. It is titled The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh. There’s something about this story that gets to me. I hope it will do the same for you, whether you’ve read it before or not. Here it is:

 

My father came to live with me and my wife Sandy in Philadelphia soon after his 90th birthday, in 1999. He had been living alone on Long Island, but health issues necessitated his relocation. Good doctoring in the Philadelphia suburbs improved his physical condition quickly, but there was no cure for the declining state of his kidneys. He became a dialysis patient one year after he moved in with us, and he remained on dialysis till his death in 2005 at age 96.

My father was in pretty good shape until the final nine or so months of his life. He loved getting out of the house and joining Sandy and me and others at restaurants, concerts, museums, you name it. On this Father’s Day I’ll relate one incident that I look back on fondly. It was the day that he and I and my brother had a private viewing of a rarely-seen Van Gogh oil painting at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
There are several known photographs of Vincent van Gogh, though they are not fully authenticated. This photo is believed to be from about 1886.

Vincent van Gogh is one of my two favorite artists. The other is Paul Cézanne. I never can decide which of the two I like best. For wordsmanship, however, I go with Vincent. In spring 2001 I read all 800+ of his mesmerizing letters, in their English translation. My father got a kick from this. He told people that I was becoming a Van Gogh expert, which was hardly the case. But my semi-obsession with Van Gogh was rock solid, and it is here that the story really begins.

One day in January 2002 I poked around some Van Gogh websites and discovered that the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which Sandy and my father and I frequented, owned five Van Gogh oils. Yet, I had never seen more than four of them on display there. The painting that I wasn’t familiar with was Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Most experts believe that Vincent painted it in summer 1886, a few months after he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and to contemplate the new techniques and perspectives, most notably those of Impressionism, that had been invigorating the French art scene. Why wasn’t the painting on display? I needed to know.

A few days later, from my desk at work, I dialed the museum and got connected to an assistant curator. I asked about the mystery painting. She told me that the museum did occasionally bring it from storage to the public galleries, but that it had been a long time since that had happened. We chatted a little and then I said thanks and was about to hang up. But before I could the curator asked “Would you like to see it?” Huh? Huh? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yes ma’am, I would.

My father was about to turn 93, on January 19, 2002. A few days before that, to help our dad celebrate his birthday, my brother Richard planned to fly to Philadelphia from his California home. I explained this to the curator and asked her if my brother and father could come along with me (Sandy, chained to her job, wasn’t free to get mid-day time off from work). Sure, she said. Fairly stunned, I set the date for Friday January 18, a non-dialysis day. I knew that something special had just occurred.

The momentous day arrived. We drove to the museum and were met in the west wing by the curator. She was a lively and lovely person and probably was getting as big a charge out of the situation as anyone. Down an elevator we all went to one level of the museum’s cavernous underbelly. We followed our hostess along a long corridor, walking past many locked rooms. At our consecrated storage area she unlocked the door and we entered. Perpendicular to one of the room’s sides were very large moveable display panels. All of them were in their retracted positions. The curator pulled out one of the panels, both sides of which were covered with paintings, maybe 20 per side. I noticed a Chagall on the side facing us. Can’t recall what else. Except of course for a work near the left edge on the top row. The Van Gogh.

Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies.
Copyright Philadelphia Museum Of Art

It was show time. The curator wheeled over a tall moveable step ladder. Richie and I went up first. What did I make of Vincent’s oil? Well, Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies doesn’t have the brilliant color schemes that Vincent was developing in Paris. It is dark, with lots of deepened greens. Maybe that’s why the museum doesn’t bring it out of storage too often. But they should. With Vincent, there’s always something to admire. I took in his trademark broad brush strokes, the intense tangles of flower stems. The greens upon greens.

Richie and I and our benefactor were excited and happy for my father when his turn came. My dad was excited and happy too, a muted gleeful smile on his face, his eyes on alert. I’m sure he knew how lucky he was to do what he was about to do. Holding the ladder rails carefully, up he climbed. Admirable mobility for a guy one day away from the big 93. He gazed at the painting for a good long spell, longer I think than my brother or I had. He spouted words of admiration. He was having a ball. Finally he came back down. Thank you, thank you, thank you we said to the wonderful curator.

Over the following years, my father and brother and I talked about our museum visit many times among ourselves and with friends and relatives. Always with a grin. Always feeling a tingle. And so, I dedicate this Father’s Day essay to Hyman Scheinin, he whom I’m sure is the only nonagenarian ever to climb a step ladder to go eye to eye with Van Gogh.

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