After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
I’m not a big believer in the idea that the deceased are able to talk with the living. No amount of talk by so-called “mediums” convinces me that people in this life can connect with the dead through supernatural means. I once read that a famous celebrity promised his wife that if he died, she would someday see his presence revealed in a white feather floating in the air. I don’t think that ever happened, or we might have heard about it.
Instead, I believe that when it comes to all things supernatural, it is up to us to find meaning in everyday experiences that trace the lives of those we have lost. Yesterday, I felt the strong presence of my late wife in a teaching experience with children the same age that she once served.
As a substitute teacher the last month and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to work with classrooms ranging from first grade through middle school and high school. Having been in many teaching situations over the years, including adult and higher education, I’m exploring how I can expand that love of teaching at this point in my life.
It has been a challenge and a joy to learn how to work with students of all ages and abilities. Like my late wife, I’ve also worked with special needs students across a range of abilities. Her ultimate career choice was a preschool teacher, a bit different than the higher-paying public school positions to which she once planned to return, but her love of teaching young children won out.
I always knew why my wife loved teaching children that age. They are getting ready for the big world of kindergarten. They need guidance in social skills as well as basic learning in the alphabet and numbers. They also love to explore the arts and play.
As a teacher one learns to adjust to aptitudes and witness how personalities are already forming. It is also a calling to help form those personalities in an encouraging way.
That means you use what talents you have available to connect with kids. For me, that means read-aloud time and drawing. Those are my best teaching attributes. While moving from group to group during play time, I shared some drawing time with a left-handed little guy who absolutely loved the process of copying what I drew on the board. At one point I drew the head of a mouse. He then completed the body and legs, and drew a companion mouse next to the first.
Such are the serendipitous arrivals of teachable moments. Sometimes you make them happen. Sometimes you let them happen.
Over a twenty-year period my late wife experienced thousands, if not millions of such encounters. Those kids were a gift to her in life. Though her life ended earlier than she ever planned, the children and raised (our kids) made it the richest life imaginable. She saw it through their eyes, and the purity of the moment is made from the absence of time. It will be eight years since she passed away on March 26, 2013. It was nice to feel a bit of connection with that life through some preschooler’s eyes.
A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”
I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.
It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.
Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.
I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.
Middle school subbing
My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.
I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…
My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.
To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.
I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.
Individualized Learning Plans
I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.
The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.
The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.
Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.
By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.
Speed it up
The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.
Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”
“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.
Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?
The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.
We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.
Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.
The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.
Black History month
I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.
That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.
I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.
That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.
I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.
On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?
Oh simple thing, where have you gone? I’m getting old and I need something to rely on So tell me when you’re gonna let me in I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin
At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.
I came across a fallen tree I felt the branches of it looking at me Is this the place we used to love? Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?
After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.
I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”
And if you have a minute, why don’t we go Talk about it somewhere only we know? This could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.
We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.
My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.
Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.
That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.
It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.
Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.
Oh, this could be the end of everything So why don’t we go somewhere only we know? Somewhere only we know Somewhere only we know
I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.
Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.
From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.
Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.
The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.
Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.
An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.
I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.
Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.
The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.
Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!
So many of us are taught to not feel proud about having sexual feelings. Yet human beings are biologically wired to have sexual attractions of one form or another. Many of these are characterized as taboo or against the teachings of a particular religion. We’re told these feelings are sinful and are thereby urged to repress some of nature’s most powerful instincts.
Feelings of sexual desire are loosely characterized as “lust,” a word that bears a negative connotation in context with scripture and other moral guidebooks. To “lust” after something is characterized as a craven or base instinct, something to be resisted. The website Biblestudytools.com describes it this way:
Lust is a temptation and an evil that overcomes many of us. It is born of Satan and the flesh. Every single one of us is subject to lust. If we are to overcome it, we must be strong. Use these Bible verses to find out why you should resist lust, and use them to strengthen yourself.
The quote attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:28 is most often cited as a directive to resist lust at all costs:
28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Yet the natural curiosity to know more about the human body isn’t just about lust. There is also appreciation involved. Even scripture recognizes this aspect of adoration in the Book of Psalms, where a lover clearly lusts for his divine partner:
“Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” (7.3)
“Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.” (7.7)
“My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” (1:13)
Okay, so now we know that exploring and expressing lust is not all bad. Many of us recognize its allure within us from a young age. I well recall, at the age of eight or so, reaching into my father’s closet to pull down copies of Playboy magazine. The sight of naked women fueled my desire even before I entirely knew what to do with it.
So strong was my urge to understand the female body that I took to tracing outlines of those women on the pages of Playboy. I stored those tracing paper drawings in the depths of my closet and returned the magazines to my father’s room.
I even drew images of naked women on the steam-covered bathroom mirror. On Sunday mornings the sight of Blondie’s buxom figure on the cartoon pages even got me going. I copied those cartoons too, but not only those. I began to replicate all sorts of cartoon figures on my own. I was learning to draw. To appreciate what I was seeing. That gave me a sense of ownership and power over my observations.
By the time I reached my early teens, I was drawing and painting regularly. My mother bought me paints and paper. I rendered wildlife that I’d seen and copied pictures from books. My desire to capture the essence of birds and other creatures was a lust of sorts.
As a sophomore in high school my drawing skills began to come together in all new ways. In a fit of drawing immersion combined with lust, I rendered highly-detailed copies of centerfolds from Playboy magazine as shown above. I didn’t always get the face quite right, but doing the shading on their bodies was captivating.
Then I reached college and took a life drawing class. My curiosity about the female and male body was greatly satisfied by drawing live figures. There was no lust in this brand of appreciation. My entire focus was on rendering the human figure with accuracy, detail and subtlety. This applied to both men and women.
It struck me as odd that when I arrived back at my college dorm room, male classmates would gather around to look at the drawings I’d done that day. To many of them, the images constituted “naked chicks” and while I laughed about it then, my interests were migrating from lust to appreciation.
Not long after college I hired a model on my own to pose nude for an afternoon drawing session. She arrived at my studio apartment, disrobed and posed on the couch, and left at the appointed time. I compensated her for the time, and did not feel any particular lust for her body while doing the drawings.
Yet I can’t honestly say that I never looked at pornography again. The nature and accessibility of naked images, especially of women, evolved with technology. I did a search of Playboy centerfolds and can identify the year and month that I last purchased that print magazine. It was 1994. In a strange twist two years after that, I was parked in a White Hen lot and looked down to find a Playboy magazine sticking out from beneath the parking block next to the sidewalk. I pulled out the magazine and was stunned to see that it was dated 1976. Patti McGuire was the centerfold. Had that magazine survived under that block for twenty years? I doubt it, but it was still strange to find it there.
These days it’s not just Playmates who show up half-naked or completely naked in the digital and real world. World-class athletes on social media know that a touch of sex sells. It’s part of the gig to attract followers, be they males lusting after fit girls or women appreciating the hard work it takes to look like that.
Society has grown to accept the sight of fully exposed female buttocks as a natural part of empowered fashion. Social media encourages nakedness at many levels, including women that willingly pose without clothes or get involved in the porn industry to make money. It’s seldom glamorous, as Rashida Jones shared in a telling Netflix series.
Exploitation, whether by self-choice or by revenge porn, is a far different enterprise than building appreciation for the human body. Some of the world’s greatest art features nude human beings. That is an accepted part of culture. Yet there’s also no avoiding that lust drives considerable occupation with the human figure as well.
I think the right kind of pride sits somewhere in between the worlds of lust and appreciation. Maintaining that balance is a sign of maturity and self-actualization. When I consider the manner in which attractive actresses are expected to bare all for movies, it makes me wonder how they feel about having their naked bodies out there for all of eternity. Women such as Marilyn Monroe were supposedly able to turn that lust magnetism on and off. It was a persona, they say. And yet, we tragically learned, it also wasn’t.
We all conduct our own mind experiments and learn our flaws and obsessions. The range of human sexual expression, orientation and gratification is far more diverse and appreciated now that society is becoming more honest about it. Clearly we still have a ways to go, and some argue that sexual images and exploitation are signs of a morally decaying society. Yet knowing about sex and having a better understanding of the human body ultimately empowers everyone in the end. Being educated and making choices is better than being repressed and succumbing to fears, guilt, and mistakes in conscience.
Ancient attitudes of automatic repression and hardline theology don’t do people any favors. They depend on a brand of hyperbole that comes from an age when sexuality was poorly understood, and lust along with it. It’s not true that people conduct adultery in their heart every time they look at a woman (or man) lustfully. Sometimes it’s just that: a look to wick off desire. Then we get back to appreciating the ones we love, and even making art that inspires appreciation of the human condition in all its forms.
As Year 2020 grinds to a close, we can agree that we everyone has shared in the difficulty of a manic year. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life and normalcy, and people are grieving loss and pain at many levels. The active symbol of that grief is the face masks we’re wearing to keep the pandemic from getting even worse than it already is.
Some people resist wearing face masks, claiming it is an impingement on their freedom. The reality is that wearing masks in public is an act of respect for the health of others and for ourselves.
The irony is that so many people seem determined to deny that reality.
Spreading disease––knowingly or unknowingly––is the least acceptable option in a civilized society. Wearing a mask is not a restriction of freedom, it promotes it. If more (even all) people wear masks in public we’ll all have greater freedom as long as this pandemic lasts.
All societies depend on etiquette to protect lives and get along in a civilized manner. The basic rule of driving on the Right side of the road in the United States is an excellent example of people agreeing that social order depends on predictable behavior to govern safety and protect lives. In other parts of the world, people drive on the Left side of the road.
Being required to drive on the Right or Left side of the road isn’t an impingement upon freedom. It is a guide designed to provide greater freedom for all. The same holds true with wearing masks during a pandemic. These are not political demands. They are practical measures designed to keep people safe.
The threat of getting sick and dying during this pandemic is real. More than 330,000 Americans have died from infection. The numbers continue to climb, and America’s infection and death rates are devastatingly real, as bad as anywhere on earth. But why?
It’s simple, and symbolic: some people still find the request to wear a mask in public a great affront.
A recent Huffpost story shared the heartbreaking tale of a man battling Covid-19 in the hospital. Days before he was intubated, he wrote his wife a series of messages, including this loving recognition of his mortality:
“If I don’t make it I want you to know that I lived a happy…life with you and would never have traded it for all the riches in the world.”
He also gave his wife a blessing to live a happy life and find love again if he passed away. That is the right kind of pride: Gratitude and selflessness are the two greatest signs of character in this world.
Yet some people don’t get that. Some people thumb their noses at the idea they have to listen to anybody when it comes to wearing masks. They appear determined to hold out due to some selfish sense of tribal pride. “Don’t tread on me?”
The irony in that the same people determined to avoid wearing masks seems so eager to obey the cynical directives uttered by politicians, business moguls and religious public figures eager to exploit the masses for political, financial and personal purposes.
That’s because the wrong kind of pride vanquishes conscience and steers people away from the truth in favor of arrogant, selfish motives.
Bathed in the light of vainglorious cause, the people that claim to hate wearing masks seeks out alternate views of reality to replace those they hope to avoid. There is a massive psychological game being played in American culture in which people that respect others enough to protect them from disease by wearing masks in public are being portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. That is gaslighting.
The wrong kind of pride encourages people to embrace resentment, greed, and fear over genuine conscience and consideration.
Even religious channels are being used to communicate this alternate view of reality. This brand of corruption is toxic and painful to witness. It encourages people to care only about themselves, or their tribe. That is the exact opposite message of the world’s major religions, all of whom seem to embrace some form of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.
While most of us mask up and recognize that this pandemic can end if people use common sense and gain enough perspective to know that the suffering will someday end, those who refuse to do so literally separate themselves from the norms of humanity and in the process, bring more suffering upon themselves and others.
That man dying from Covid who wrote loving last words to his wife knew better than everyone the value of life, and love. That is the message more people need to hear; that life is precious, and the right kind of pride is having the humility and respect to care about others.
Many years back, when I was still single and engaged in a long distance relationship with the woman I’d eventually marry, we ached to be together during the Thanksgiving holiday. She flew out to Philadelphia where I’d been sent on a job transfer and we made the best of it. I grabbed the literal last turkey in the grocery store and we baked it in the oven. Then we parted ways again until Christmas.
We’d only met the previous year in October. Any plan of being together long-term was just formulating. Early the next year, the company that moved me out East dumped the entire marketing department. I was left trying to decide what to do next. Stay out East, or move back to the Midwest?
I moved back to live with a friend in downtown Chicago and spent the next couple years living a dual life between the city and suburbs. That was a period of great change and experimentation. After a couple of years, I’d had enough of the Bohemian city life. We got engaged and married the following year.
From there, it felt like a blur of events as our first child came along, then another. We celebrated holidays with our respective families. Those days of celebration together rolled on. Mostly we got together at her family home where her parents were always wonderful hosts. Sometimes my parents would join those festivities. Over the years, we also invited friends to add to our joy.
Our Christmases were filled with family togetherness. The anticipation of opening presents with the kids was so high some years we had to let them open a small gift before the rest of the family got up so they wouldn’t burst from the pressure of expectation. Our kids were always respectful, but when they had a hint of the goodies to come, it was cruel to make them wait several hours to open the “big gift” that they’d requested.
Early on, one of those “big gifts” was the Red Ryder BB Gun from the movie A Christmas Story. It became a new tradition in the annual celebration along with watching the movie umpteen million times.
My father-in-law loved those Christmas mornings more than anything on earth. He also made a big deal out of Easter joys and the annual Easter Egg hunts as well.
His birthday was on the Fourth of July, so that day was always filled grilling steaks and setting off backyard fireworks of the milder kind, except the year that his son and friends loaded up with a stash from across the border in Indiana and blew off so many fireworks the police showed up to confiscate many of them. When the cops arrived, my father salted away the major part of the fireworks stash in the garage. He was a conservative guy by trade, but he also loved a bit of fun. That’s how they did things out in the Nebraska hinterlands where he grew up. You had fun until you got caught. Most of the time, you still got away with it.
These days that father-in-law is gone. He passed away during leadup to Christmas 2012, the year before his daughter, my late wife, passed away after eight years of ovarian cancer treatments. These days, my mother-in-law is quite alive and doing well. But we’re cautious with our visits given the Covid-19 pandemic. My own mother and father passed away in 2005 and 2015, respectively.
So we’ll be apart this year on many fronts. My son lives in Venice, California and the state is rife with Coronavirus, so he’s sitting tight. I cancelled a planned visit with him earlier this year over concerns of infection myself. This will be his time in 34 years that he’s not in company with direct family during the Christmas holidays. It hurts to be apart. But there also comes a point in everyone’s life when circumstances or other interruptions place things out of our control. This is an inside joke with my children, but those changes really do “build character.”
My daughter and her boyfriend live nearby, and we’ll likely see each other. But they’re cautious about the Coronavirus too. Even more than I. So we’ll all Zoom with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and make the best of this holiday the way we have always done. That’s what most families typically do during the holiday season anyway. We go through the motions of opening presents, but to our group’s credit over the years, we dialed that down quite a bit, choosing one person to “gift” each year, and we’d buy or make small themed things for the rest of the family. That took the pressure off the shopping. We could all focus on the joy of appreciation instead. I’m always grateful we did that. It was the right kind of pride to turn our attention away from the presents and toward the relationships.
Our holiday get-togethers were always mixed in with long naps from food comas and other indulgences. For many people, that’s a big part of being together. Letting everyone have their time and space. Sometimes, it’s the unchanging nature of the holidays that makes them special.
We’ve added some critters to our celebrations over the years. This little dog Chuck is a rescue that is now almost fourteen years old. My son has a dog named Luke Skybarker that he’s brought home from the holidays. This will be the second Christmas with our dog Lucy for my wife Sue and I. We’ve all adopted these pups and some cats because they bring change (and joy) into our lives each day.
It’s also true that life’s changes come along whether we like it or not. That’s why finding joy amid the changes in the moment is important. The ache of times past comes from the happy remembrance of shared celebrations. That is the inseparable bond from which we can draw strength. When our hearts ache from being apart, we turn to that. But there is also the joy of creating new traditions, celebrating with newfound connections as well. Over the years, we brought people into our circle to share those bonds. That’s a tradition we should all embrace. Make the world our family.
If this year has proven anything, it is that increasing the breadth of that “circle” is the reason we’re all here. Reach out. Make it happen. The world needs you. Celebrate Christmas or whatever you do by connecting in new ways and old. That’s what this is all about. Peace. And joy to you.
Last Friday night I sat down to check email one more time before relaxing for the evening. There was a message from a website called FineArtAmerica. A woman named Delinda was writing to inquire about a painting that she owns. This is what she wrote:
Good day, I am inquiring about this magnificent print of yours, titled on back in handwritten notecard, reads: Great Horned Own with Red Phase Ruffed Grouse. 3/5 life size. Curious, it says ’78 perhaps as a date? I can send pics if you need to see it, hoping to get more info about who it may have been commissioned for, or if its just a random print? I love it so much, its so lifelike it scares my cat lol. Thanks in advance, Delinda
The painting was a labor of love a long time ago. It bears similarities to a watercolor by an artist that I admired and emulated. His name was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the greatest bird artists that ever lived. I’d gone to Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology to study the work of Fuertes and other great bird artists. I did my best to absorb what I could from studying their work close up.
My aspirations were to become as great a bird artist as I could. This particular portrait was a refinement of an earlier study I had done. I also executed an ink drawing of the same pose. But the pose originated from a painting I produced as a freshman in college from a stuffed great horned owl borrowed from the biology lab. That painting copied the mussed up feathers verbatim, a condition that a live owl would never likely allow to happen.
When I showed the 1975 painting to Dr. Lancaster, the Director of Laboratory of Ornithology, he blurted, “That’s some of the finest featherwork I’ve seen.” I took that as a kind compliment. Clearly he saw my potential, but also noted that much further study of birds was in order to become a fully accomplished bird painter.
That I continued to do. But the challenge was finding suitable resources. I’d learned taxidermy in college, but it was illegal to collect and own dead birds of any kind. Still, I collected specimens and kept them in our second freezer for reference. I owned a camera with a 300mm lens but never seemed to get good quality photos to copy. Plus it takes years or genius to absorb and render the “true” lines and forms of birds in the wild.
The years passed and I produced hundreds of paintings of varying quality for patrons public and private. Almost all of those are in the possession of people whose whereabouts I do not know. Occasionally I’ll be contacted by someone who wants to know if I’m still painting. We have a good chat and they send me a picture of the painting they own. That makes me feel good. Someone prizes a bit of my work.
I’ve even gotten calls from strangers who came into possession of one of my paintings. One of them started our phone conversation with a question, “Are you famous?” They’d picked up one of my watercolors at a garage sale of a couple getting a divorce (I remember the couple) and wanted to know if the painting they’d purchased for $25 was worth a bunch of money. “I hate to disappoint you,” I related. “But I’m not famous.”
Last year a friend found one of my paintings at an antique shop in Michigan. They were browsing the store and saw a painting of an eagle that I’d painted long ago. I’d done the work on commission for Robert Van Kampen, a patron who went on to sell his investment company to Xerox for $400 million. He hired me to do a series of hawk paintings when I was 18 years old. Somehow it escaped his estate and has been kicking around antique shops the last forty years.
Last Friday night, I wrote back to my new friend Delinda thanking her for getting in touch with me about the owl painting from ’78. She explained how she came to own it.
“So happy to hear from you! I live in San Diego, ocean beach, and people leave things in alleys all the time. The owl I’m guessing was from someone older who may have passed away. I’ve had it for about 5 years now. It was in an alley for about ten seconds before I grabbed it, others really wanted it too but I won lol. I knew it was special, and would be happy to return to you if you’d like it, or donate to the school or elsewhere that might appreciate it. Otherwise, I will cherish it forever, as I love owls and birds! XO”
I told her that I wanted her to keep it for as long as she wanted it. We agreed that if I get out to visit my son in Venice, California, we’d get together as friends and share a drink by the ocean.
That’s the most an artist can hope for in some ways. That the work builds connections. I’ll not pretend that I became one of the world’s greatest bird artists as I once believed was possible. But I also haven’t quit. These days, with the camera and lens I now own, and ability to collect good reference material, my work has improved and continues to do so.
I may never be a Louis Agassiz Fuertes. No one ever will. But I can be the best Christopher Cudworth that I can be. That’s the art of not being famous. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Recently I held Zoom call with a cousin that lives in Florida. His parents were my favorite aunt and uncle during my youth. They ran the farm on which my mother grew up. My father grew up on a farm right down the road and they met as kids and married after World War II. Then our family history began.
We lived through all the typical vagaries of families in America. My dad was in and out of work as an electrical engineer. My mom carried us through by teaching elementary school for 20+ years. There were hints of an affair by my father at one point, but my parents stuck it out for all of us. Four boys. All athletes. All creative. We lost a sister during childbirth between my next eldest brother and I. We seldom talked about any of that.
Instead, our family’s move from the East to the Midwest left us all without much contact with our relatives. That meant I never heard much about the rest of our family history from other perspectives. Our parents didn’t tell us that much either. More likely, we weren’t that interested in listening. Too preoccupied with sports and hormones.
Family history eventually does catch up with us all. It would be decades before I realized that my dad’s father suffered through the loss of his wife to sepsis after a breast cancer surgery. Or that he lost his farm in the Depression, then lost a store and another mate, and ultimately succumbed to deep depression requiring an institutional stay. All that family history was locked away in the Let’s Not Mention It Chest.
By the time it finally emerged, I’d long come to recognize symptoms of anxiety, depression, and some anger issues in myself. I met with counselors to help me sort it all out. Over time, I adopted coping strategies and gained cognitive perspective on triggers and traps that send people into ruminative thinking. That is the centripetal force of anxiety and depression. It is its own Black Hole.
While talking with my cousin about mental health on my father’s side of the family, he mentioned that anxiety and depression were ‘well-documented’ on my mother’s side as well. “Your grandfather was depressive,” he told me. “His father was worse.”
Finding out that ancestors dealt with mental health issues seems depressing, but in many respects, the opposite is true. I believe that knowing family history when it comes to mental health is a vital tool for living a healthy life. If you know the lay of the land, it is much easier to navigate it.
The same goes for attention-deficit disorders. I wish that someone sat me down during those early years, even in grade school, to explain that my mind works differently than other people. I already knew that from dealing with boredom and distraction in the classroom. I’d have welcomed the chance to address those issues with an adult who was honest with me, maybe even encouraging. Let’s be realistic: kids are much smarter about their own brains than most people realize.
My method of coping largely involved pouring energy into creative outlets such as art, painting or exercise. I could feel my brain engage and then relax while doing those things.
These days, psychologists often recommend art therapy and exercise to give people with ADD, anxiety or other mental health issues a healthy way to wick off distracted energy.
Even at a young age, I knew that I could often do the work if given the chance to get my brain on task. My fourth grade teacher understood that, and I thrived with good grades all year. The next year, my teacher was a stiff-necked disciplinarian who wanted nothing to do with creativity. Just learn.
Being to just “sit still and do it” was the opposite of how my mind worked, or what it needed. I rebelled at times, sometimes aggressively in the childhood manner of fighting back in various ways. That was an instinct exacerbated by a domineering father who probably suffered from ADD, anxiety and depression as well. He likely hated seeing the same symptoms in his children, even if he didn’t fully understand the source of his frustration.
So these cycles of relative sanity versus ruminative negativity are difficult to identify and cure. But it can be done. That is why I still find it fascinating to talk with a long-lost relative and hear about how people who came before us dealt with life’s challenges, and there were many.
The thing that sustains me through self-analysis and confession is the knowledge that while my relatives and ancestors faced sometimes significant challenges, they also worked hard to lead productive lives. My mother’s father was a farmer. He also a highly cultured man, encouraging my mother’s musical talents. He even hand-built her a violin that she took to Potsdam College in Upstate New York to become a music teacher. Decades later, my daughter Emily Joan (named after both her grandmothers) learned to play on that instrument before we purchased her a better instrument during her progression in music.
The other thing that I retain from the grandfather who built the violin is a hand-constructed chest made out of wood, tin and metal fasteners. I think about the talent and care that went into building that chest, and the home-grown knowledge of how to do it. The leather strap handles are long since gone, but I can lift that chest and know that the hands of a man I never met were what built it. There’s value in that.