Friday, June 29, 2012

Goodnight Sweet Zip

I haven't blogged for a long time.  I always meant to get back to it, but knew, in my heart of hearts that it would take a big event to get me back to writing.  Sadly, that big event occurred today:  I had to say good-bye to my best little pal Zip, the Jack Russell Terrier extraordinaire.  My heart is broken.  I'm not quite sure what to do with myself now that he's gone.

It was about 13 1/2 years ago that I went with my friend Johnny to look at a 6 month old dog that some folks were wanting to sell.  The people "said" they were allergic to him and needed to get rid of him.  The minute I met "Milo" I knew the truth, and was pretty certain allergies had nothing to do with it. He was a handful.  He  never stopped racing around the room the whole time we were there--running, jumping, barking, bouncing off the walls.  I had never witnessed such energy before.  At the time, we thought it was adorable.  We took him home.  I should have known, when they let him go for $50, and when the pup got a cursory "bye" from the owners, with no sense of sadness or sorrow, that we were in for an adventure.

To us, the dog was NOT a "Milo".  We decided to let him name himself.  It didn't take long.  The first day we had him, John's sister and brother-in-law came to visit.  Bill sat on the sofa. The dog saw Bill, hit the floor running, and, with one gigantic leap, landed atop of Bill's head.  Bill was not amused.  I thought it was hysterical.  ZIPPY! We learned immediately that this racing, running and jumping that we thought was so adorable never, EVER stopped.  It sort of ceased being cute by day two and became a bit of an issue.  The dog simply never tired.    And, when he was bored (which was always) he became destructive.  He ate the carpet.  We thought it was safe to barricade him in the kitchen when we left because it was all tile and, as far as we could see, there was nothing he could damage.  He ate the backs of the wicker chairs.  I mistakenly shut my bedroom door one morning, locking him OUT of HIS bedroom.  That made him mad.  He ate something else--I forget what.

Also,his previous owners told us he was potty trained.  He was, sort of.  When he needed to go out, he would come and look at you, and then go to the back door to go outside.  However, if you happened to be fast asleep when he looked at you, he went to the back door and promptly "went" on the "inside" part of the door.  Too bad for you. You should have been paying attention.

It was time for doggie training.  I enrolled him in school at PetsMart.  It was a disaster.  Other dogs seemed to learn relatively quickly.  Zip chased them around and barked at them.  He didn't understand why they were all sitting and staying.  It was an alien concept to him.

At the end of the course, the teacher, (a Jack Russell owner), graduated Zip.  That earned a lot of laughter.  Then she gave us the "most improved student" award, earning more laughter.  I didn't think it was funny.  My dog was brilliant.  He was just....undisciplined.  The teacher understood and encouraged me to "stick with it."

We figured if we could find a way to expend all of that energy somehow, Zip would be less of a terror in the house and more of a terrier.  However, living in Arizona, laden with heat, gravel yards, and dangerous, roaming coyotes, there was no good way to let him run--and, having been no great success in doggie training, the word "come" was akin to "blah, blah, blah" as far as Zipster was concerned.  We just couldn't let him run around loose outside.  He would take off, chasing rabbits, and we'd be lucky to find him again.  Finally, Johnny rigged up a deal where we could let him run on the sidewalk while we drove along in the golf cart.  It was a winner.  The dog literally went NUTS when we got ready to take him for a run.  It was the saving grace to our relationship with Zipster.  Every night, we hooked him up and took him for a run.  Being a true athlete, we eventually got him up to running several miles.  It was impossible to slow him down.   He absolutely loved it, and, glory be, it tired him out.

I also started running him in agility training.  That was fun, but he was a disaster.  He was lightening fast, but he decided that he loved running through tunnels and hated doing weave poles, so, instead of following the course and my directions, he just ran around like a crazy lunatic, looking for all the tunnels and running through them.  He had a blast.  The problem; however, is that the instructors at the agility training were exceedingly militant.  Agility wasn't supposed to be fun!  When Zip lost control (which he did each and every night), they got angry--blaming, of course, the owner.  As if I had any command authority over my dog.  They just didn't understand the Jack Russell mentality.  One night, they got so mad when he took off running and chasing all the other dogs, that they yelled and me and made me cry.  Losers.  No worries--we discovered there was a such a thing as "Jack Russell Day"--an actual event where hundreds of screaming, barking, crazy Jack Russells came together for racing, tunneling and, his favorite:  lure coursing.  This is where I finally realized I wasn't a bad owner.  I saw hundreds and hundreds of dogs, all acting exactly like my own--with owners unable to control them.  I felt vindicated.  We quit agility and hung out with the Jack Russell owners.

By the time Zip was seven or eight years old, I decided to keep him.  We had succeeded in learning what we needed to do in order to keep him from destroying the house.  He had an incredibly independent and interesting personality.  He wasn't needy.  He wasn't a "cuddler".  You might think he was--but you would be wrong.  He slept next to me in the bed and on the sofa because he decided that if the floor was not good enough for humans, it was no good for him either.  Everywhere I sat, he would sit--EXCEPT the table.  Somehow, he realized that taking a place at the dining room table was off limits.  I initially decided that he would NOT sleep on my bed.  He had other ideas.  He came up immediately.  I pushed him off.  He jumped back up.  I firmly set him on the floor.  He jumped up again.  I put him on the floor.  He lay on the floor, waiting, until I fell asleep and stealthily crawled up onto the bed.  It woke me up.  I put him back on the floor.  The next morning, he was next to me, in bed, under the covers, head on the pillow.  This battle went on for three weeks--with him in bed beside me every morning.  I was losing sleep.  And, I was losing the battle.  Finally, I gave up and, when I went to bed, threw the covers back so he could get under them.  Somehow, I doubt I'll be able to sleep tonight, without the Zipster by my side.  I came to like having him there, even if he was a bed hog.  Amazing how such a little dog can take up the entire bed.

The truth about Zip is that I fell in love with him.  I took him absolutely everywhere with me that I could.  I planned vacations and trips that would allow him to come along.  Last Christmas, I opted to drive from Indiana to Phoenix for Christmas, so that I could bring him with me.  He traveled across the US three times with me.  I brought him to Mackinac Island twice.   My weekends, and evenings after work, especially in the summer, revolved around which park, beach or trails we would be exploring.  I loved Zip--but what I loved most was watching how very excited he got to go for a walk, a car ride or a ride on the boat.  I had to spell the words "g-o", "P-e-t-S-m-a-r-t", "w-a-l-k", "t-r-e-a-t" and about 500 other words.  I convinced my friends that Zip's vocabulary was well over 500 words--and I wasn't lying.  Did I say he was brilliant?

I have spent more time with Zip than with any one person.  And it leaves me wondering what I will do when I wake up tomorrow on Saturday (better known as "Zippy's Day"), and he won't be there, bugging me, pushing me to take him somewhere.  I really miss him and letting him go today was one of the hardest things I've ever endured.  But the poor guy was very sick and he wasn't going to get better.  There is no redemption in animal suffering.  They are incapable of understanding why they feel so badly and why they can't do the things they loved to do and were created to do.  I knew I would not let Zip suffer, despite how much I wanted to keep him near me.  So the vet was good enough to come to the house and help Zip go to sleep.

I can't describe how blessed I was to have had this little pup in my life for so long.  He brought out the best in me.  He helped me to realize and try to overcome (or at least downplay) my biggest shortcomings--my inherent selfishness, my temper and my impatience.  He was pure joy.  I couldn't help but feel good when I was with him.

I've received a lot of nice messages today regarding Zip.  I hope my friends are right.  I hope there is a doggie heaven or a rainbow bridge and that, one day, my pup will bound towards me and leap up on my head.  I know I'll be thrilled to see him again. Until then, sleep well little pal.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Random Musings on Thanksgiving

Black Friday.  As one who has never participated in this event, I can only imagine what it's like:  snarls of traffic, people fighting for parking spaces, lines outside of Kohl's, Best Buy and Old Navy and other stores that open up at 3:00am  Many of my friends participate in this event, but I just cannot bring myself to do it.  Like anyone else, I love a good sale.  However, I prize my sleep a bit more.  And here in Indiana, we have the added benefit of sub-freezing temperatures.  It's much warmer under the blankets.

So Thanksgiving has come and gone.  They say that it is the busiest travel day of the year ("they" were my mother's dear friends.  I never met them, but she always talked about "them", and whatever "they" said was of paramount importance.  "They" are the experts and so we must listen to them). Thanksgiving is a holiday uniquely American, and one that seems to take paramount importance in our lives.  Everyone wants to get home, wherever that may be, for this great day.  Most of us do not let the day pass without massive preparations, ending in a huge feast together with our loved ones.

It is the one holiday of the big three that does not celebrate a holy event in Christianity.  We trace the initial Thanksgiving back to the pilgrims in the 17th century, who celebrated their first successful harvest and invited some of their Native American allies to a meal; however, it was more than likely not referred to by them as "Thanksgiving".  George Washington, John Adams and James Madison all designated official days of thanks during their terms. But the day was not officially recognized as a national holiday until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who, in the midst of the Civil War, issued a proclamation that this be an official day to pray for the healing of the wounds of our nation.

Americans love this day, and as I reflect on why, I am filled with a sense of hope for our nation and our people even in these seemingly dark and dismal days.  True, Thanksgiving can lend itself to gluttony and to endless hours of football.  I confess that I look forward to watching the Lions, despite their abysmal Thanksgiving Day record in the past decade, and yesterday was no exception.  But most would accept that there is something more to this day than massive amounts of food and drink, and going comatose in front of the TV.

Christmas has become so commercialized that I actually dread it.  And we have made almost a joke about Easter, inserting, of all things, a bunny and eggs into the celebration of this holy day (I cannot fathom how the feast of the resurrection of Christ came to be associated with an eerily large rabbit who hops around delivering colored eggs, but that's for another post I think). I would posit that Thanksgiving has remained intact.  It is, quite simply, a day to stop and give thanks and it seems that most people still acknowledge that.There are no arguments or complaints by the ACLU or those who are, during the Christmas season, offended by the appearance of  the creche on the town square.  And yet, the day is, at its heart, a deeply religious holiday. The mere name of the holiday tells us what we are about on this day--giving thanks.  But thanks to whom and for what?  To our employers for a paycheck?  To the school board for days off?  To Meijer's for the big turkey? Clearly, those of us who are employed are thankful for our jobs in this time of large scale unemployment throughout the nation.  And which of us does not appreciate a few days off from work or school?  And who doesn't love a big feast with family and friends?  I am appreciative of my employers for the paycheck, but it would be ludicrous to think that they were the object of a national holiday.  No, in the end, our thanks is and must be directed at the One who made our lives possible, and that One is God.

I find it unusual then, that those without any faith or belief celebrate this day. If, indeed, the day is all about giving thanks, to whom are they directing their attitude of gratefulness?  My hope is that there exists, in all of us, an inherent need to assume an posture of thanksgiving towards our Creator, whether we recognize it as such or not.  And in stopping to give thanks on this special day, perhaps it is a small chip in the armor of those who refuse to accept the benevolence of God on every other day.

It is simply impossible not to accept the religious nature of this day.  As a Catholic, I attend Mass on Thanksgiving.  While it is not what we term a "holy day of obligation"--a day that we are, as faithful Catholics, required to acknowledge by our attendance at Mass, many people still fill the churches because, in so doing, they are expressing their thanks to God, and admitting that all they have and are is a GIFT.  Catholics tend to be "by the book" when it comes to attending Mass.  Usually, if it's not an obligatory holy day or Sunday, attendance is sparse. However, this is not true of Thanksgiving Day.  I have lived in many places and am always heartened to see the church very full on this day.  When I lived in London, the Cathedral offered a special Mass for Americans on Thanksgiving, and large numbers of us attended, acknowledging the need to come together and express thanks on this day--a day not officially recognized in England as any sort of holiday.   The word "Eucharist" comes from the Greek and means, quite simply, "giving thanks."  Among other things, this is what we do when we come together to pray in the Mass.  Therefore, it is a natural act for us to attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not go the way of Christmas or Easter.  There clearly is an attempt to commercialize it, as we are pushed to dash to the grocery stores, and, it seems, that the turkey wearing the pilgrim hat and belt buckle has become the symbol of the day.  Many of us probably spend gross amounts of money on food for the all-important feast.  And yet, the meal is an important and significant part of our celebration.  Ingrained in Christians is the idea that we celebrate our thanksgiving with a meal, as did Christ at the Last Supper.  And so we do spend money and have more food on the tables than those present can possibly ingest.  But it is also a time of charity amongst us.  In giving thanks, it is difficult to do so without being cognizant of those who suffer and live in dire poverty.  Statistics seem to show that Americans are more charitable during this time than any other both with donations of money and with their time.  Being thankful goes hand in hand with recognizing that there still exists suffering amongst our brothers and sisters.  Hopefully then, this day pushes us to not only remember them, but to actively participate in alleviating their suffering in whatever way is possible for us--even if it is simply in prayer.

So, our thankfulness, or, at least mine, is directed towards God.  And while it is often far easier to dwell on that which is wrong, and pine for that which we don't have, I am grateful that there is a day...a national day that causes us to recall and be thankful for all that we have been given and offered, including our lives and our salvation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Get off the Expressway

In 1956, after much lobbying by the automobile industry, the Interstate Highway System was authorized under Dwight D. Eisenhower.  We can thank the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 then for our expansive and intricate web of expressways that wend throughout our country, allowing us to reach our destinations much more expeditiously and, because of that, less expensively.

I am not opposed to the system we have in place, and, at times, I find myself frustrated that there aren't more such expressways.  The drive from South Bend to Indianapolis is nearly intolerable with two lane highways and seemingly endless stoplights and snarled traffic as one traverses through larger towns such as Kokomo.  However, there are times when the pleasure of the trip comes from the drive itself, and, in getting off of the expressway and onto the lesser traveled roads and two lane highways, one can catch a glimpse of Americana and of a culture that seems to be from time gone by. However, small town life seems alive and well.  It's just that we don't actually see it when we're zipping by on the beltway at 70 miles per hour.

This past weekend, I opted to "get off the highway."   A month or so ago, after a trip to Hagar Township, MI to walk my dog on the one remaining beach that allowed dogs (and now, the township has opted to disallow dogs, causing a big ruckus amongst the people, but more on that in another blog post), I discovered a place called Bob's Barn.  Bob's Barn is one of hundreds of "farmer's markets" that you will come across if you bother to get off the expressway while driving through Michigan.  I stopped because I saw the enticing sign offering "pumpkin rolls."  This writer has never, ever bypassed any establishment that offers pumpkin anything, and so I pulled into Bob's, my mouth watering.  Alas, when I walked into the market and inquired about the pumpkin rolls, Bob's wife told me that they were all out. She actually makes them herself, along with pies, pastries and muffins of every sort.  Bob's sells their own produce, grown on the farm behind the market.  There are various and sundry other offerings, such as jams and jellies, pickled produce, honey, soaps and a variety of other products, not all hand grown or hand made by the couple, but most of which come from local growers and manufacturers.  They explained to me that the market used to belong to her parents, and at that time it was just a roadside stand.  They inherited it years back--(they've been married for fifty years now!) and so they have run the market for a good long time.  Six years ago, they experimented and actually erected a building because, they said, "people preferred not to shop in the rain." and told me that, after a slow first year, it took off.  I was indescribably sad about not getting a pumpkin roll, but encouraged as they handed me their card and told me next time to "call ahead" and they would have some waiting for me.  In the meantime, I took a good look around the market.  A couple was sitting at one of two little tables, having a coffee and some ice cream.  I got the impression that they were "townies" and that Bob's was a gathering spot for some of the locals.  Bob (or at least I assume that he's Bob), gave me a tour of the place.  It seemed as if this is what life must have been like for many, many more people before the advent of the superstores and one stop shopping.  I left with a bottle of honey from Benton Harbor and a home made muffin, promising that I would soon return for the pumpkin roll.

So, this past weekend, I planned to travel up to Holland for a family reunion. Making good on my promise, I called Bob's before leaving, and they assured me that they would have pumpkin rolls waiting for me.  I couldn't have been more excited! When I arrived, I learned that they also make "lemon rolls" as well, but was told they had to be pre-ordered.  No worries there.  I purchased two pumpkin rolls, and told them I would stop on my return home on Sunday. They asked if it could be after 1:00pm, as that's when they return from Sunday church services.  It was refreshing to hear folks talk about attending church services without a flutter of embarrassment.  That's the way it should be.  I purchased a home-made pistachio muffin for the road, which Bob happily offered to warm up for me, and I went on my way.  By the way, it was the best pistachio muffin I have ever had!

On Sunday, heading south out of Holland, I decided, instead of hopping onto the 196 expressway, that I would instead take the old Blue Star Highway down through Harbor Country.  This portion of US 31 is most probably the route taken in days of old when folks wanted to travel down to Chicago.  It parallels, for a good part, the shores of Lake Michigan, and goes through Saugatuck, Douglas, Glenn, South Haven, Covert and into Hagar Township.  After my short visit to Bob's Barn the day before, I was curious to see what life was like off of the expressway. I was not disappointed.  First of all, there is minimal traffic.  I was not hurried from behind.  It was a gorgeous day, and there was still a spot of color on the trees bordering the winding highway.  Driving along, I noted the many shops and markets where people grow their own food.  There are countless quaint antique stores along the way with their wares stocked up outside in the fronts of their shops.  There are small, beach front motels that really are called "The Shangri-lah" and "Breezy Acres" and the "Lakeshore Motel".  And, as I expected, there are countless farmer's markets, both small, such as Bob's, and larger ones, like Earl's, pictured above. Many are closed for the season such as Earl's, because we had our first snows on Friday, and so the berry season is long over.  I imagine, also, that many small businesses rely on the throngs of summer tourists who flock to the shore, for much of their trade. The markets still open are offering apples and apple products from their orchards.  I picked up a big jug of apple cider and a couple of apples from Dee's, and had a nice chat with the owners.  I was telling them that I much preferred fresh produce from the source and, obviously, the home-made apple cider, which is always so much tastier than what you pick up in the supermarket.  The ladies responded that it was gratifying, but affirmed the obvious--self sustaining businesses are very hard work.  I can't even imagine...


I drove slowly through the neighborhoods around  Saugatuck, where homes are not cookie cutter carbon copies of one another.  There are, sadly in my opinion, too many new developments going up around the lake shore area; consisting of very expensive homes in gated communities.  However, expensive they may be, there is in them, no charm or originality.  These older homes actually have front porches!  I wonder, do people still sit there in the summer, drinking lemonade, listening to the baseball game, and waving to the neighbors as they stroll by, as we used to do many years ago?  It seems so, in these smaller towns and communities.  These are large, older homes with enormous yards for kids to play in, and huge trees and gravel driveways.  The lawns, while beautiful, are not pristinely and uniformly mowed by a landscaping service that has been hired by some home owner's association.  Fallen leaves lie about on the grass, actually allowing us to realize that it is autumn.  Somehow, I can't imagine a neighbor charging over to complain that there are a few leaves about.

I approached a large curve in the road and was treated to the site of a gas station that did not sprout a Shell, BP or even Marathon sign.  Big Curve gas station looks as if it came out of the 50s or 60s.  Pristine and unique, with sort of an art-deco flair, I could almost envision the attendant coming out in his clean, white overalls, checking my oil and cleaning my windshield.  Alas, it was a self-serve station, but it was refreshing to see an independent proprietor along this route.  Somehow, it seemed to fit in better with the general lifestyle off the expressway.  

Along the drive, there are numerous restaurants and diners.  You will not find McDonald's or TGI Friday's along the Blue Star Highway.  You will find places such as The Blue Moon Bar and Grill, the Blue Star Grill,  and, my personal favorite, the What Not Inn.     

Another type of business very prevalent in this area are the antique or gift shops.  Many seem to be run out of the owners' actual homes.  They are quaint and inviting, and it is difficult to drive on by.  I would suspect that business slows quite a bit when the snows fall.  Despite Michigan being a winter sports paradise, I would guess that more people roam about Harbor Country in the summer and autumn than in the winter, and it makes me wonder how these folks get by during the long frigid months from December to April.

Of course, not all of the businesses are small.  You'll come across the large flea markets, held inside the big red barns.  These are conglomerations of small business owners, who bring there wares to a central place, offering "one stop shopping" to the consumers.  Still, by shopping at these places, you're supporting the small business owners in the area.  This one below even has a theater attached.

As I wended my way farther south, I realized that I was going to arrive at Bob's for the long awaited lemon roll well before 1:00pm.  I came across a beautiful conservatory.  There wasn't a single car in the little gravel parking lot.  I pulled in, and I and my sidekick Zip took a stroll through a beautiful, pristine, wooded area.  It was an unbelievably gorgeous, if not chilly, day, and I think that both of us enjoyed wandering along the paths.  At one point, I realized that I had not been keeping track of our directions.  There were many paths, going off in all different directions.  Fortunately, we were able to find our way, eventually, back to the little lot.  It had been a magnificent day, but I was thinking about the lemon roll awaiting me at Bob's.

I wound up back at Bob's Barn about 12:45 and they were already open.  Bob was still wearing his suit from church. His wife produced the promised lemon roll, and then helpfully added that she had made another if I was interested.  I thought long and hard, but opted instead for one lemon roll and a home-made pineapple upside-down pie.  I picked up a few honey crisp apples, and said my goodbyes with the promise of returning soon.  

Bob's Barn
I would imagine that the advent of the mega-stores and supermarkets have made life more difficult for folks who have small businesses such as the ones along the Blue Star Highway.  I am not against those stores.  Meijer's one stop idea was probably a godsend for people such as my mother, who was trying to shop for a family of seven.  Being able to pick up everything in one place definitely was a time-saver for busy parents, and, admittedly, the food tends to be less expensive as well.  But I can tell you that I never had a lemon or pumpkin roll from Meijer's that tasted as good as the ones from Bob's Barn.  And I have never, ever seen a pistachio muffin for sale at Meijer's either.  Even more importantly, I think, is the conversation.  In just two trips to Bob's Barn, I learned quite a bit not only about the proprietors, but also about the Township and the area.  When you go into a Meijer's or a Lowe's or a Walmart, you don't often meet people and have a chat with them.  You don't find out where the food or produce comes from, and you certainly don't meet the folks who made the items you're purchasing. With the dissolution of these small businesses, came the dissolution of the notion of the neighborhood.  Somehow, sacrificing that for convenience's sake doesn't seem to be a fair trade.

As I walked out of Bob's with my bag in hand, I looked down and noted that she had placed my purchases in a plastic bag from Meijer's!  Well, what goes around, comes around!  I had a little chuckle at that.

We always seem to be in a hurry, but, every once in awhile, I would urge you to slow down, and get off the expressway.  You might be really surprised and pleased at what you find beyond the beltway.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I Love ArtPrize

Wow, I haven't posted in a long time.  I'm certain my plethora of readers out there have missed my usual clever, perspicacious and insightful discourse. Right?  Can anybody hear me out there?

I have, indeed, been busy.  Very busy.  "Weighed under," and "swamped" are more accurate, with multiple evening meetings, weekend commitments, a little surgery and, in the midst of it all, a move.  But, life is returning, somewhat, to whatever constitutes normal for me.  (Now THAT would make an interesting blog post, but we'll leave that for another time--sometime way in the future when my brain will be able to accommodate thoughts of normalcy and how far away from it I actually am.)

La famiglia after having hogged
 down golumpki and pierogi
Last Saturday, I ventured up to Grand Rapids.  There were two reasons for making the two hour trip. Notably, especially for the Poles, all of Grand Rapids was celebrating Pulaski Days. This week-long festival is in honor of Polish heritage. There was, indeed, a General Pulaski, after whom this celebration was named.  Sorry, I have no clue as to who he is or what he did of note.  I'm basically Italian, but, just as all good people become Irish on St. Patrick's Day, all good Grand Rapidians venture to Polish halls and eat Polish food during Pulaski Days.  So, I did my duty, met my family at a Polish Hall, ate very heavy (but incredibly yummy) polish food and washed it down with a Miller Lite (see photo).

Waiting in line at the Grand Rapids
Art Museum to see ArtPrize stuff
The second thing currently occurring in Grand Rapids is ArtPrize.  ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, grandchild of the more famous Richard DeVos of Amway fame.  It is in it's second year in Grand Rapids and, therefore, is now a tradition.  ArtPrize in a nutshell, is a festival/contest, which invites artists of all media types to secure a venue, mostly in downtown Grand Rapids, and, after paying a very small entry fee, display their art there for several weeks.  The winner of ArtPrize is decided by (gasp) democratic voting by "we, the people". Needless to say, this novel idea has been the source of much controversy and publicity in the press, online, and on the streets.  The winner of ArtPrize receives $250,000.  This is NOT small change (especially by artists' standards!)  The controversy surrounds the two novel ideas of ArtPrize: What in the heck do ordinary people know about art, and, how gauche and pedestrian is it to display one's precious work of art in the hopes of winning dirty, ugly money (and lots of it)?

Em and Rick with "Elephant Walk" at ArtPrize
(the music "Elephant Walk" playing in the background
and the fact that their heads bobbed made this one fun)
I can't remember the title of this painting, but I enjoyed it

Lure/Wave at ArtPrize (loved it)
Apparently, 1,700 artists could care less as to whether it is appropriate for an artist to be a participant in ArtPrize. You can't walk very far in the city without seeing one of the pumpkin colored ArtPrize signs, indicating that a certain restaurant, bar, church, museum or empty warehouse is displaying someone's entry.  I'm going to put myself out on a limb and say that I think ArtPrize is one of the best things to ever happen to the city of Grand Rapids, at least in my lifetime. It's a pity that it's only two weeks long (and that it can't be WARMER outside). Downtown Grand Rapids, during this time, is teeming with people; all there for the purpose of viewing the artists' exhibits.  And when they're not looking at art, because they have been wandering the streets for four or five hours, they are frequenting one of the many newer, chic bars or restaurants in downtown Grand Rapids, resting their feet and having a drink and a meal. Growing up, I often heard the phrase "Downtown Grand Rapids is dead." And it was true. Woodland, Eastbrook and North Kent Malls pulled shoppers out of downtown and into the suburbs.  There was no reason ever, to go downtown, except to the Post Office, or to that one newsstand where my father used to buy his Daily Racing Form.

"A Matter of Time"--really impressive wood working

My favorite:  "Vision" at ArtPrize
ArtPrize pianos are throughout the city, encouraging
us to sit down and play!
Local renowned artist Larry Blovitz had two entries
Larry Blovitz's second entry
Not really in the running, but I was attracted to this one

My hometown is no longer dead. Downtown Grand Rapids is alive and well, and, regardless of whether one is Republican or Democrat (or neither), one must acknowledge what the DeVos family has done to contribute to the resurrection of life in this city.  We can argue all day and night as to whether what we see in ArtPrize is true "art", and whether local yokels (and I include myself in this, even though I now live in Indiana--so please don't write and attack me for calling anyone a "yokel") have a clue as to what constitutes good art.  It matters not.  There are, clearly, some outstanding works of art amongst the 1,700 entries.  There are some whimsical and fun pieces, that, while they probably will not win, are enjoyable to look at and experience, and might even involve youngsters in the discussion about art (my favorite of this genre was last year's Loch Ness Monster, made of foam and placed in the Grand River.  This year it's "SteamPig" but frankly, I find that one frightening, and it gives me nightmares.)  There are pieces that I look at and puzzle over, and then, finally, shrug my shoulders and say "I don't get it."  I don't have to get it though.  ArtPrize is, in the end, an "event".  It is an attempt to bring people into the city and see just what a fantastic place it has become (and, hopefully, to spend a little bit of their money in local establishments).  It is the cause of multiple and endless conversations about art--something most local yokels would never, ever bother about on any normal day.  It gives artists an opportunity to have their art viewed. The final result of ArtPrize is that we are ALL talking about art.  And really, that can't be such a bad thing, can it?

Just broadcast today on the NBC Today show is a great look at ArtPrize:

For me, this one only works if my brother stands there like that
Scary and big:  It's STEAMPIG
Another one I enjoyed looking at
This one looked like something Gooch would put up at Christmas
It lights up.  Su-weeeet
My sister-in-law liked this bronze

Fun textile entry

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Never Forget

It has been a strange and odd week, and an even stranger day today, on September 11.

Here at Notre Dame, there is much excitement in the air, as the Fightin' Irish prepare to take on perhaps their biggest rival, the University of Michigan Wolverines (although, really, isn't everyone their biggest rival?  It sure seems that way).  I can't help but post this video clip from one of my all-time favorite shows, The West Wing:, demonstrating the "importance" of this game, fought between the two winning-est college football teams.

Much more importantly, however, we solemnly recall the anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.  I do not need to recount, in this space, what occurred on that day, here in the United States of America.  Each year, we witness memorials to that event, as this country remembers those who lost their lives on that day.

This year, there are two other events swirling around that directly effect one's emotional state of mind.  There has been an ongoing battle regarding whether it is right and appropriate to erect a mosque on the rather hallowed area called "Ground Zero", where the twin towers and several other buildings went down on that fateful day.  And, in response, there is the threat by a southern Pastor and his 50 member "church" to burn the Qur'an.  This threat is causing all sorts of responses worldwide--most in anger and opposition. Not only are devout Muslims protesting his threat; but also, most faithful Christians, who see it as a foolish act which will accomplish nothing good and only serve to further escalate the violent and unjustified actions by extremist Muslims throughout the world.  I am concerned for my students in Egypt, lest they get caught up in some sort of protest that turns anti-American.  It is not as if any of them have any connection to either of these two events.  It matters not in this turbulent world.  Most people who are injured or lose their lives to terrorism are totally innocent--they are neither combatants nor politicians responsible for policy.  

In the midst of all of this, I find I am rather in a quandary today.  Obviously, I cannot wait to watch the Irish tear apart the Wolverines.  But I remember back to that day in 2001.  Every adult remembers where he or she was when the news of the the attacks was announced.  I remember actually having to go to work after that point and, as a Realtor, show property!  I was stunned when the clients still insisted on going out, because it felt as if it was a day of national mourning, not to mention utter shock.  I remember that all airplanes were grounded across the country, and I shuddered a bit the first time I saw a commercial airliner in the skies again, a week or so later.  I recall the nervousness and anxiety I felt the first time I boarded a plane after those horrific events. Sporting events were cancelled across the country and late night talk shows gave way to ongoing news reports.  It did not seem at all appropriate to watch some silly, flippant comedian commenting on insignificant events.  They, themselves, realized this and opted to remain off the air for some time.  It was a long time before things returned to normal, although I believe that we have never really returned to whatever constituted normal prior to September 11, 2001.

However, I would argue that, in a way that is, perhaps, impossible to avoid, we have "forgotten."  I don't mean that in the sense that we don't remember what happened.  What we cannot recall, nor hang onto, are the powerful emotions that we all experienced during those horrible days.  Shock, sorrow, agony, grief, astonishment, disbelief, rage, resolve, and, yes, even intense hatred. Psychologically, it is probably impossible to recall those emotions such that we feel them in the same way as we did nine years ago.  I think that is what allows us to move forward. Still, it somehow seems inappropriate, in the midst of all that is happening, to be excited about a football game.  

However, if we do mire ourselves in those sorts of attitudes and emotions, I suppose life would not go on.  Next to the events of September 11, everything in my daily life and around me seems so insignificant. Clearly, it is not right, nor helpful to sit in a chair in a dark room and mourn and grieve and ponder those events for the rest of our lives.  Life has to go on.  But we do have to remember, and we need to find ways that resurrect, if only for a moment, some of those feelings and emotions we experienced on that day.  By doing so, we retain our unwavering resoluteness to, as much as is possible, right the wrongs that occurred that day.  The lives can never be brought back, but we must never fail to honor them.  Their sacrifice can never take a back seat.

I have pondered the two issues--the burning of the Qur'an and the building of the Mosque.  I am opposed to that idiotic pastor and his community's wish to go forward with this stupid and misguided idea.  However, I must defend, without exception or reservation, his right to freedom of expression.  That is what sets America apart from many countries. I think the guy is a right idiot, but the bigger wrong is to allow official or government intervention prohibiting his actions.  Our national clinging to personal rights and freedoms is, in one sense, why others sought to attack us; and they used those very rights and freedoms, which we see as sacred, against us.  I was horrified to find out that Saudi citizens came to our country, were admitted freely and then were taking flying lessons a mere 25 miles from where I was living so that they would know how to pilot a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center.  Does that mean we should close our borders to everyone? Does that mean we should corral all people in this country who arrived from the Middle East and deport them? Emotionally, I want to scream YES!!!! Quit letting people in that may do us harm!  Send the rest away, at least for now, because we cannot determine who is here to harm us and who is here innocently.  As a reasonable person, however, I realize that is not the right thing to do and to respond with extreme fear would do us, as a nation and a people, much more harm than good.  

As for the mosque...I do not believe it should be built there.  In the same way I do not believe any sane person should burn the Qur'an, I do not believe any sane person should build a mosque on what is considered hallowed ground. Both actions show intense disrespect and both actions are inciting hatred.  It does not HAVE to be done and, despite all claims, it will accomplish nothing positive and will only serve to further divisiveness amongst people.  I would claim that they have the right to build their center there, if they can purchase the land and get the permits, but, as I have said many times before, just because we have a right, it does not mean we have to take the opportunity. Having a right and doing the right thing--often two separate things.

Well, in the end, I am going to watch the ND/U of M football game today.  But I will not forget, and will go through great lengths to try and recall those very intense emotions that I felt on Sept. 11, 2001.  I'll continue to pray, most fervently, for those poor and innocent victims who tragically and horrifically lost their lives, and, most hopefully pray for some sort of peace in this world. I'm going to post a link to the Thomas More Law Center.  There is a video entitled "Lest We Forget".  I have seen many, many tributes to the victims of that day, but this one, at least for me, is the most powerful.  It is difficult to watch--with graphic pictures and sounds, but I believe we owe it to those who lost their lives that day to "remember".

I wish, most of all, that all of the battles in this world could be confined to the football field...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Visiting Cemeteries

Monday, Labor Day, I packed the dog in the car and made the two hour drive up to Grand Rapids, mainly for the purpose of visiting the cemetery.  It was the 3 year anniversary of the death of my mother, and, as I had the day off from work, felt inclined to go and visit.

I will admit, quite freely, that had it not been for one or two conversations with my mother prior to her death, I probably wouldn't make frequent visits to the cemetery.  However, every time I went home to visit, I waited for her to ask me to take her out there, so she could visit my father.  I never quite wrapped my head around why we had to drive all the way out there, almost always in the midst of a bleak, blustery, and frigid winter day.  When I looked up at the cold stone up at the top row of that mausoleum, I never felt the presence of my dad. Inevitably, while there, mom would say, quite wistfully, something akin to "When I'm gone, nobody will come here."  Nobody has ever been able to lay a guilt trip on me in quite the way my mother could.  So, of course, I try to get there several times a year.

I've been reflecting a lot on this tradition of cemetery visiting.  Frankly, it seems to be dying out...pardon the pun.  As a kid, I remember that the visit to the cemetery was an obligatory ritual.  My family in New Orleans has a massive, above ground tomb--as only New Orleans cemetery tombs can be, and my great grandparents stated that any family member could use it when the time came.  On Memorial Day, All Souls Day,  Independence Day, anniversaries of deaths, or any other sort of national holiday, I remember going with my grandparents, and my mother, out to the tomb.  It was a half day affair, while my grandmother and mother weeded the whole area, swept it, washed down the tomb, replaced dead flowers, and basically did housekeeping.  Given the time spent there, one could almost compare it to a vacation home (but not one I'm too anxious to visit anytime soon.)

I remember dreading those visits because, as a child, I was bored to tears. And, as most children would, I found it a little bit creepy and morose, spending all that time hanging about a cemetery.  However, in retrospect, I understand why it was so very important.  We honor our parents and grandparents while they are with us, and this is a way of doing so after they depart.  More importantly, on a personal level, I remember that there were always stories told during those hours.  If it hadn't been for those visits to the cemetery, I would probably know much, much less about my great grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins and all the many souls in my family who have found their final resting place in that massive tomb.

I do not believe that my mother and father are hanging about on the top row of the mausoleum up in Grand Rapids.  But I have come to be a bit more like my mother and my grandmother in regards to cemetery visiting.  The frustrating thing is that my parents did not opt for a grave below ground. They are, literally, high up in a wall.  Yesterday, when I arrived, it was cold and rainy.  Stupidly, I was attired in shorts and a t-shirt, and therefore, I sat in the car and stared at the stone, containing their names and their birth dates, and the dates of their deaths.  I did pray, and I admit to talking to them.  More so, I was moved to remember things about them and about our lives together as a family.  It is a good place to remember, honor and reminisce.  I guess, in the end, I'm grateful that I don't have to spend time weeding and cleaning the area around the tomb because I hate yard work as much as I hate death.  But there is something disturbingly untraditional about the wall.  I have this strange urge to want to touch the headstone, as if, somehow, that will bring me closer to my parents--but it is too high up and too far removed.  And yet, writing that now, it seems a silly concept, since I keep telling myself that they are not there.  I suppose it's human to have a need for the tactile--something to touch when the actual person is not there.

When I was in Louisiana back in July, I spent some time walking through a very old cemetery.  I was surprised to see graves going back to the early 1800s that were still cared for.  Some had flowers resting over the stone. Some had little civil war flags waving next to them, indicating, I suppose that the person had been a soldier.  But there were quite a few, as one would imagine, that had gone neglected for years.  There were, disturbingly, too many little graves, indicating the burial of small children or infants--something that was probably all too common during the 19th century.  Many of the stones were illegible, and I could not help but stand there, sadly, and wonder about the stories behind those graves.  There was nobody left to remember them, to tell stories, and to care for their tombs.  And yet, it was not too difficult to imagine the scene, much like the one from my own memory, of the spouses, parents and siblings, coming out and tending to the graves of their loved ones all those years ago, and desperately trying to find ways to reconnect with the one whom they lost.  Now that I am the cemetery visitor, I no longer think it is a silly thing and I regret that many of my own contemporaries don't seem to consider it an important tradition to continue.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

"Humility is the root of all obedience; and patience is obedience made perfect."  I read these words recently in Cardinal Henry Manning's work "The Eternal Priesthood".  Apt words, too, as humility is something about which I have been forced, perhaps somewhat unwillingly, to ponder these past months.

Modern day interpertations of humility have, I think, somewhat skewed our reactions to the idea of humility so that it can take on a somewhat negative tone.  Sometimes, we think more of humiliation, or shame, or being lowly (in a bad way).  In this day and age, our society encourages us to be great.  We want to be number one (or at least those of us at Notre Dame at the start of a new football season share that attitude.)  Humility is not a trait that headhunters will encourage when one is searching for a job.  We need to pump ourselves up, and to exaggerate our qualities and talents so that we will rise above the rest of the masses and be noticed by potential employers in hopes of achieving the great job and salary of a lifetime.  No matter whether these traits we exhibit on our resumes are based in total truth.

Manning said something else though:  “Humility does not consist in ignorance of truth. If a man is above the average height of men, he cannot help knowing it.” Now, recently, someone took offense at my posting of this quotation, thinking that I was making veiled comments about someone's less than average height.  However, I was not; because I am not nearly clever enough to come up with those sorts of "read between the line" jokes.  What I wanted to convey was that, in order to be humble, we need to openly and totally accept what is true about us.  If I possess a fantastic talent, it is up to me to admit to that talent, but also to acknowledge the SOURCE of that talent.  For example, I happen to be a fantastic violin player (which, of course, is an outright lie, since I am only able to play one piece with any accomplishment whatsoever, and that is "Drunken Sailor").  But, let's pretend that I am a virtuoso on the violin.  In that case, it would be no good to go around saying that I absolutely suck as a violinist.  There's nothing more annoying than proffering a compliment to someone, only to have him or her respond in a falsley modest way, in an attempt to downplay the talent that s/he actually possesses.  False modestly is NOT humility.  I don't know what it IS, but I hate when people respond that way.  It makes me wish I had not offered the complimentary words in the first place and, in the end, I just want the person to go away.

Being humble means also admitting the not so good things about ourselves, as well as acknowledging THAT source.  As a person of faith, I give gratitude for my talents and gifts to God, whom I acknowledge as the Creator of all good and beautiful things.  That is why, in accepting a compliment, I am not being a pompous, proud jerk.  I don't actuallly take the credit for my astonishing interpretation of "Drunken Sailor" but, rather, in receiving and accepting praise, give praise to Him who allowed me to have and develop this amazing ability.  However, the same is not true for my screw ups.  God does not create screw ups.  When I fail in life (far too often these days), to be humble is to accept the truth--that it was I who fell short of the mark, of my own volition.  To respond any other way is to live a life of falsehood.  It is to deny the truth, and, therefore, to let go of any semblance of humility.

I can speak from personal experience in saying that not accepting responsibility for those failings is to opt for the path that spirals downwards.  I do believe we were given a sort of road map to assist us in our time here on earth.  Part of traveling through life demands that we look inward and discover what we have been given, and what we do possess, and find ways to use those things in order to give glory to God.  The other part, which I think is much harder, is to acknowledge that our imperfect selves make huge mistakes, sometimes way too often.  When we lack humility, we go on doing the same things over and over again, hurting others, and, just as equally, hurting ourselves.  Until we openly and humbly look at ourselves truthfully, we will never get beyond those ugly things that hold us back from achieving our potential, and from carrying out that which were are here to do.  I'm not sure, but I think pride might be the opposite of humility, and, you know what "they" say about pride?  (In case you don't:  it goeth before the fall.)  As an aside, I always used to ask my mother who "they" were.  She seemed to know "them" pretty well, as she always used to quote them.  Well, they must be pretty wise, because they say a lot of things that seem to be true, and, regarding pride, and probably humility too, I think they're right.