Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Benched #17: sitting in a stream

Would you rather be the river or the rock?

The question came to me as I propped my camera on the balcony of Grand Central Terminal in NYC and set a slow shutter speed.  The ensuing photo showed only the people standing.  Those walking were ghosted trails.  Mere smears.  Currents that ran around the solid forms, like water around stones.

My new life makes me feel like I’m one of those currents.  Leaving and coming home then leaving again, I live in a rhythm that doesn’t work with the solid, stolid life of a small town.  I’m out of synch.  I only materialize when I slow down.

Slowing down is what being benched is all about.

But, surprisingly, finding a bench in Grand Central is not so easy.  Apparently, they don’t want to encourage people to sit, though people do resign themselves to the floor. 

I decided against the official waiting room, where the benches seemed like a punishment for those unlucky travelers who had somehow screwed up their train schedule. That left only the subterranean eating area for me.

Downstairs, I sat down in the middle of a long bench to eat my food.  Around me people ate their dinners quietly, with the exception of a young Asian woman, sitting bolt-upright next to me against the hard bench.  She was having aloud conversation with someone, apparently invisible. 

I realized, as I often do in airports, that she must have been using a Bluetooth with her phone.  Her friend on the other end seemed to be a patient listener, for she endured the woman’s fast-flowing stream of emotion.  Each sentence seemed like a verbal punch.  At one point, I heard her say, “I can see right through them.  But they can’t see me!”

It made me think of the ghost trails upstairs.

I glanced over at her again. That’s when I realized that I was wrong.  She didn’t have a blue tooth. She was a very solitary rock in her own stream of spoken thoughts.

How sad.

Just then, a little face appeared right beside mine.  A boy, about five years old, had climbed the back of the bench from his side as his parents called after him.  I couldn’t resist – I hastily scribbled a drawing of a dog and handed it to him. He tumbled back down his side and showed it to his parents and siblings.  I now had four faces peering over, asking for drawings.  The oldest was too busy eating a hot dog to care.

My interaction with the family – Hasidic Jews on a day’s vacation into Manhattan – made me realize that my art is indeed an anchor for me.  I won’t be able to change the nature of my schedule.  But I can become a little less elusive by using my creativity to connect to people. 

Just like I’m doing right now.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Benched #16: looking up

It’s my birthday.  I am celebrating it by lying on a hard bench, my right foot elevated on the arm rest, watching jets fly overhead and hearing the echo of giants playing nearby. 

That’s Giants.  But not Jets.  At least, not tonight.

The Sheraton in the Meadowlands would not be my first choice for a birthday destination.  But I’m here, making my return to the business world and the world of busyness, after a two-week hiatus.

It’s funny how time is so mutable.  Had the two weeks been vacation, they probably would have felt too short, like I had hardly been away.  But they were far from fun.  My wife had significant surgery.  (She’s on the mend.)  At the same time, I had an unfortunate arrival of a kidney stone.  (I’m much better, too.) Soon after, I seriously sprained my ankle.  (Hence the elevated foot.)  And because of the hardship, the time span feels more like an eon, like I’m awakening from some Van Winkle slumber to find the world had moved on without me.

Difficulty can be isolating.

How strange it is to step outside of the flow of regular life. But being a bit removed gives a fresh vantage point.  It’s a matter of perspective.  When I teach watercolor to seventh graders in our town, I always make a point about how we all tend to set the “camera” at eye level when we draw or paint.  It’s good to move that lens around – sweep it up above and look down from a bird’s eye view, or place it on the ground and get a worm’s view. 

Given the choice, I’d rather be the bird.  Been feeling a bit wormlike lately.

But earlier tonight, after a grueling drive in traffic, ankle aching, I met the team of co-workers I have collaborated with so many times.  And though, over dinner, they talked about all the events they’ve been doing without me, I realized once again how intriguing and inviting is this work that I do.  I can feel that eagerness beginning to spark inside of me.

So now, I lay on a bench, looking up.  Watching the sky.  Following the planes as they cross my line of vision.  Thinking about how I’ll most likely be on one soon, looking down.  Back into the flow of things.

And I’m thankful for the new outlook.  Even if it had to come the hard way.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Benched #15: talking about hard things


My friend, Mike, has been one of my most enthusiastic readers since the start of this blog.  A couple of times he has texted me shots of benches he has found, which has been delightful.  For some time, Mike has wanted me to come with him to see his dad and hear how a bench connected two generations.

So on Sunday, I found myself sitting with Mike’s dad on his back yard bench in the shade of an overhanging tree.  Mike sat nearby.  As we sipped ice tea, Eli told me his story.

Years ago, he kept a bench on his porch.  It was not much to look at, just a retired theater prop. One day, Eli’s elderly father knocked on the door and gestured to the bench.  “Come out and sit with me,” he said,  “And talk.” 

They sat.  And talked. They chatted about what they believed and what they didn’t.  Real-life stuff.  Practical subjects.  Philosophy. And hard things, like planning the older man’s funeral.  Afterward, a neighbor, who had been mowing his lawn nearby, came over and said, “That was really neat how you could sit and talk with your dad like that.” 

That was the first of many such father-son conversations.

I asked Mike if he was carrying on the tradition.  He said, “It’s not easy to sit.  There are so many responsibilities that keep distracting me.  Dad and I find that we talk more while doing things together.”

I know what he means.  Most men, I think, find it more comfortable talking while doing. Like fishing. Golfing. Hiking. I shared with them something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves: romantic loves stands face to face; brotherly love stands shoulder to shoulder.  True, benches put us shoulder to shoulder, but there’s a physical proximity issue in play. You’re darn close together.   Too much so for most men’s comfort.  I admire Eli for being willing to get that close to his dad. In both meanings of the word.

The bench in his yard is not the original one.  But when he sees it now sitting empty under the shade tree, he finds the sight bittersweet. He misses those long chats.

A few days later, I sat with one of my sons -- not on a bench (though I tried) but across a table outside of a coffee shop, straining to be heard above the trucks that roared down Market Street.  Along the way, the dialogue turned to hard philosophical things.  As I found myself raising counterpoints to my son’s points, I thought of Eli and I backed down.

It ought to be a sweet thing to talk to one’s dad.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Benched #14: carved and growing legacies

John Bartram made my thinking, while on this week's chosen bench, a matter of life and death.

I was sitting in a national historical site named Bartram’s Garden.  Named after the father of American botany, the 44-acre property is incongruously tucked into West Philly along the banks of the Schuylkill River. It’s encased on three sides by row houses, trolley lines and hot pavement. Think of it as The Property That Time Forgot. 

But John Bartram’s loves have not been forgotten.  And as I sat, looking at his house and grounds, I wondered – not for the first time – about what we leave behind when we go.  Defining my legacy is a part of what this Benched pursuit is about: finding the best use of my remaining years, not simply to entertain myself, but to bless those around me.

John had something to say to me about it.

From what I could see, he had three great passions: stonework, botany and his family.  Each was on display, more than two centuries after his death.  Each spoke to me about legacies.

Carved in stone.  Bartram not only fashioned his house out of hewn rock, he included hand-carved messages. One is a simple, profound statement of faith.  One is dedicated to his marriage.  (More on this in a minute.) And one pictures his fascination with plants.

In each of our lives, there are artifacts we leave behind – physical objects we create that have meaning and value to loved ones.  I have a large collection of illustrations, an ongoing set of journals, and a pancake I made in 1976, though I’m not sure my kids share my nostalgia for that last one. Those artifacts are set. Unchangeable.  And in a way, their unchanging nature is what makes them treasured. They are statements of the moment.

Planted.  There are also things we create that continue to change and grow after we’re gone. Bartram’s plantings – in particular a cutting from a rare tree he discovered that no longer can be found in the wild – have a life that continue beyond his.  Part of our legacies are things we “plant,” particularly in the sensibilities of our kids, but also when we pass on a passion to our friends. Researchers tell us that happiness can be viral, affecting not only our friends but our friends’ friends.  I ask myself: what am I planting that will continue to grow?

Finally, there is a poignant reminder in all this to not take time for granted.  Ann Bartram, named in the carving above, was Bartram’s second wife.  His first wife, Mary, had died only four years into their marriage, right before he started building his house.  No one had to remind John that time was fleeting.

But I appreciate that John reminded me.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Benched #13: big faces in little spaces

There was no practical reason for the grimaces facing me.  Not only were there grimaces, but leers, smiles, and a host of empty stares.  And these were not just human visages – there were a host of strange creatures: monkeys, dragons, donkeys, a griffin or two, as well as a handful of beasts rendered unidentifiable by erosion.

Penn’s Quadrangle, an impressive brick dormitory on the college of the University of Pennsylvania, is covered with gargoyles.  And gargoyles – from the french gargouille, meaning throat – were originally meant to be rain troughs to channel the water away from a building. 

But these were here purely for the whimsy.  Their function seemed only to entertain.  And sitting on a bench by the grand entrance of the dorm, I was more than entertained. They enthralled me.  I couldn’t sit long, since I had to encircle the entire building and capture a line-up of the squat, yet somehow acrobatic, figures.

Returning to my bench, I began to consider the task facing the creator of these.  It was a very constricting assignment.  I could just hear the explanation: “Yo, Michael!  Yo, Angelo!  We’ll give you, like, a hunnert of these sculptures to do, but ya gotta fit them into this square or fuggeddaboudit.”  (Exactly when did Philadelphians start talking Fluffian?)

As I tried my hand at sketching my own, I realized how hard it was.  Vertical bodies don’t lend themselves to squat, squashed spaces. There is a genius of contortion on display in them.  Look for yourself.

More than anything else, however, what got my creative juices flowing was that most wonderful of challenges: theme and variation.  I love theme and variation.  Create a look, establish a set of rules, construct a framework then play inside that space.  Make the space small, make the rules restrictive and the play becomes even more impressive.  Like dancing in a phone booth. 

Life is full of repeating tight spaces.  For me, they’re a bit of an evening free.  They’re cramped cross-country flights.  They’re whiteboards.  And sheets of paper.  Part of this pursuit of Benched is to find away to play inside those constrictions, but just like these gargoyles, to play in a way that delights others.

What can one do within our little squares?

I have a very direct application in mind.  I’m going to try my hand at these gargoyles.  Not carved, though.  Drawn. Perhaps I’ll add one to each letter I write to a friend.  Without the building around them, without the weathered stone, I suspect they’ll seem a bit arbitrarily compacted, but I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to play a bit.  Let out a bit of whimsy.

Maybe my gargouilles can channel something after all.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Benched #12: weathering the storm

Was the storm over the windmill coming or leaving? 

That was the question I pondered recently, sitting on the couch that faced the largest of Rembrandt’s landscape paintings in the National Gallery in D.C.  One side of the sky was heavy and ominous.  The other streaked with innocuous clouds.  Below, on a darkened landscape, a boat slid toward shore on a calm, reflective river.  A woman washed her clothes.  Nearby a man watched her.  Just up the road a bit, a child walked with another woman, nearly invisible in the gloom. Above it all stood a windmill, silhouetted against the shadow.


Storm coming?  Storm going?  It’s hard to tell.

The answer changes the tone of the painting.  If the storm is going, it’s an image filled with hope.  Coming, it’s foreboding.

Sky half full or half empty?

I like the ambiguity of art.  Nuance and uncertainty imbed in it layers of reward.  Those who walk past get a surface pleasure, but those who linger find a deeper, complex delight.

In the Rembrandt room, this murky painting was overshadowed by one of his famous self-portraits.  I love that unflinchingly honest portrait. In fact, it’s my screen on my phone. And, had the “bench” not been facing The Mill, I probably would have been like the many who passed by, merely glancing.  But I had chosen to sit and soak my senses in this landscape.  And it slowly released its treasures like a child’s hand unclenching pebbles.

It showed me that, compared to the deep pools of Rembrandt’s work, my paintings are merely puddles. It challenged me to ask myself why I shy away from darkness – both literal and figurative -- in my work.  I don’t think of myself as a shallow guy, but one wouldn’t know that by my art.

The Mill also provoked me to think about people I pass because of the time it takes to get down through their layers.  I’ve got to walk by less.  Linger more.

But mostly, it kept drawing me back to that central question: Darkness coming or leaving?  And as I sit here in a hospital room, watching a loved one recover from major surgery, I’m connecting to the hope in that painting.  The storm came, as anticipated, did its worst, and now life returns.  The sky hasn’t cleared yet, but peace dominates the landscape.  Soon, it’ll be time to do the laundry.

And in the center stands the brilliantly lit windmill, its strong, cross-like arms stretched out against the receding gloom.  It centers the painting.  It anchors the landscape.

For me, that’s one artistic element that has no ambiguity.

It’s clear as the returning day.

Rembrandt's last name: Van Rijn, literally means "of the Rhine."  His father owned a mill along the river. The painting at the top is how the painting looked in the museum.  This is my photoshopped lighter version which may be more like the way he saw the final painting.

Rembrandt's last name: Van Rijn, literally means "of the Rhine." His father owned a mill along the river. The painting at the top is how the painting looked in the museum. This is my photoshopped lighter version which may be more like the way he saw the final painting.