Friday, November 11, 2016

A Tribute to Giles Waterfield

I first met Giles in 2001.  Or maybe it was 2002.  It was a long time ago. I was working for 5 weeks as a 'Rector' (live in Residence Director) for the University of Notre Dame Summer Program in London. At that time, the program required that its faculty plan within the course a 5 day travel program, relevant to the subject being taught. Those of us who were "non-academics" were duty-bound to accompany a faculty member on this trip, to "deal" with the undergraduate students, so that the faculty member could concentrate on his or her teaching during the venture.

The first summer I served in this capacity, I went to Paris with the music professors.  I had a wonderful and interesting time, and, except for one or two little hiccups, mostly having to do with a very intoxicated man attempting to pick me up, the trip went off without a hitch.

The following summer, I returned and was told I would be accompanying Professor Giles Waterfield's class on the five day trip to Amsterdam, Haarlem and the Hague, for his art course.  I had never meet Professor Waterfield.  I instantly had visions in my head of American sitcoms featuring the English butler, whose name always seemed to be Giles.  The character was inevitably haughty, condescending towards Americans, and very English.  Needless to say, I was intimidated before I even met Giles Waterfield.  I was not looking forward to this.  I hadn't even considered the major issue with this trip--the fact that certain narcotic substances were all too readily available in Amsterdam and I would be charged with making sure our students were attuned to their academics and "Dutch Art of the 17th Century" and NOT Amsterdam coffee shops.

I remember meeting Giles for the first time, just prior to our trip.  He did seem to me very English, in both speech and mannerisms.  As I listened to him speak to students, I remember feeling slightly queasy.  I had never been to Holland. I knew absolutely nothing about art.   I would be in charge of getting them there on the train (Giles would meet us there), getting their admissions to everything, dealing with accommodation, making sure that they stayed together, and on and on.  I felt totally inadequate.  And terrified of Giles Waterfield.  I knew he was going to be annoyed with me and my performance.

Encumbered by my intimidation of this person and my lack of familiarity with Holland, I proceeded to stumble my way clumsily through the five day trip, making mistake after mistake, all the while having to deal with a major glitch that was not my fault--the means of obtaining funds given me by the university was not working. At one point, I actually had to ask Giles for money.  Giles had no other choice than to conclude that I was an idiot.

However, on the second day of the trip, Giles asked me if I would like to join him and a friend for dinner. My first thought was no, absolutely not.  At this point in the trip, I had probably made about six stupid mistakes and, despite being a graduate of charm school in Grand Rapids in 1980, was feeling the biggest klutz in the world.   But the other option open to me was to find a place to eat by myself and retire early to my room.  One in my position didn't hang with students after hours, and the red light district of Amsterdam wasn't really my scene at the time.  So I agreed. That evening, I had dinner with Giles and his friend from Utrecht, who was working with an organization to recover paintings that had been lost or taken by the Nazis during WWII.  It was a fascinating evening.  After the dinner, when I retired to my hotel room, I wondered why Giles had invited me along.  I had already gotten a sense that Giles was somebody very important in the art world, and I was not.  There was absolutely no reason to include me--he had no obligation whatsoever to make sure that I was taken care of in my free time on this trip, and I must have seemed the most uninteresting person in the world to them. And yet, over the following three days, Giles invited me for a coffee, or a drink, or lunch in our free time.  He expressed a tremendous amount of interest in me and my life, and shared some interesting stories of his own.

At the end of our five day trip to Holland, I had a mad crush on Giles Waterfield.  I can only say that without embarrassment because I'm certain that everyone that knows Giles would, (if he or she were being honest) say the exact same thing.  Still, I continued to be intimidated by him (and told him so) for the next two years. He took great pleasure in that.

On our trips to Holland, I noted that people stopped Giles and spoke to him.  I noted him autographing things.  One morning, walking down a street with him, a gentleman on a bike stopped and greeted Giles.  They hugged, and spoke warmly.  After a few minutes, the man pedaled off, at which point Giles explained that this was his good friend who was Director of the Rijksmuseum.  The Rijksmuseum?  You mean that big-assed place with all of the Rembrandt paintings, at which we spent about five hours of our time the day before?  The Night Watch place???  As he was explaining a painting one afternoon in the Hague, a woman came up to him and said something along the lines of "You're Giles Waterfield."  Indeed he was.  I shook my head.  Giles was secretly famous.  Who knew?  His students know....every semester, about halfway through the term, they would inevitably come up to me, eyes wide as saucers and say "Did you know that Giles has written NOVELS?"

I have so many memories of my times with Giles, but one which rates in the top five things I have ever experienced in my life also happened one summer in Amsterdam.  We had the morning free, and were not due to meet the students until early afternoon.  This was the summer of THE exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum:  the Caravaggio-Rembrandt exhibit.  It was not on our itinerary, as apparently it must not have been relevant to the material of Giles' course.  But he said to me the day before, in his lovely voice:  "Judy, would you like to go and see this exhibit with me?"  As clueless about art as I was, I was not from another planet.  I knew this was an amazing exhibit, and had seen the people queued up for 1/2 mile to get in.  I also knew it was sold out.  So I eagerly nodded.  He told me to meet him there the next day at EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  What?  OK.  I did.  The lines were already down the street.  Giles took me in a side door, whereupon he informed me that the curator of this exhibit was a great friend of his. Of course he was. What else is new?  I was able to see this exhibit, side by side with this most astonishing man, listening to his commentary (and being followed about by a very nervous security guard, who, I could tell, was annoying Giles to no end--and that amused me to no end).  We were at the last picture when the exhibit opened, at which point I had a true appreciation for the fact that the Dutch are amongst Europe's tallest people, and was grateful to have been able to see these paintings unobstructed.  I walked out of the Van Gogh museum as if I was in a dream world.  To this day, I point to it as one of the highlights of my life.  It was a turning point for me--and the beginning of an admittedly very basic appreciation of art.

I had the good fortune of being able to do 4 or 5 of those summer program trips with Giles and his class.  Those who know Giles do not really need to read any further to understand why I was so taken with him, because they know about his character, his charm, his unique and generous soul.  Those who never had the fortune to meet or know Giles--well, it's better that you do not know what you missed.  The experience of Giles cannot be recaptured or recreated because I don't think we shall ever see his like again.

I was unable to return to the summer program in 2007, but actually was able to return to Notre Dame London in a full-time capacity in 2014.  One of the reasons I was thrilled to come back was to be able to once again be colleagues with Giles, who was still teaching at our institution, and I was not disappointed.  I absolutely loved seeing Giles weekly, and engaging in conversation with him.  Just last month, I was able to accompany him and his class to the Frieze Art Fair at Regent's Park.  It was a joy to see him with his students, who were clearly excited to be there.  Giles sent them off on their assignments and walked around the fair with me.  They came back and practically grabbed his hand, wanting to drag him off to show him their discoveries.  I think this is what I loved most about Giles--his relationship to his students.  Here is a man who had no need to teach.  His students at Notre Dame were not art students.  They were business students, science and engineering students, and the occasional Arts and  Letters student--most of whom were taking the course because it fulfilled the Notre Dame Fine Arts requirement.  But in Giles' classes a passion was awakened in many of them.  Because he exhibited an interest in his students, they naturally wanted to respond to his teaching.  I can't recount how many times I heard students say that Giles was their favorite professor.  I can think of at least two who changed their course of study after being in Giles' class.

To this day, I don't really understand why Giles went out of his way to spend time with me and be my friend.  Admittedly, he would chide me about my self-image, and this last statement is exactly the sort of thing that would annoy him.  In truth, I acknowledge my own value as one of God's creation, yet I never figured out what I added to Giles' world. He was amazing.  He was internationally renowned. He was an author, a prize-winning novelist.  He was the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery for years.  He curated amazing exhibits world-wide.  He was famous and knew famous people.  I was none of those things.  I knew little about any of the things that made up Giles' world.  That he took me under his wing and actually went out of his way to spend time with me--and share part of his life with me speaks volumes about the man, about his humility, and about his attitude and outlook upon people and upon this world he inhabited for way too short a time.

Everything I know about art, I owe to Giles.  BG (Before Giles), I detested the thought of entering a museum.  It was an alien world and I felt as if I didn't belong.  I found museums to be an exercise in fatigue, and, on the rare occasions that I found myself in an art museum, would stand in front of the largest painting, and look at it, pretending as if I was analyzing it, and acting as if I actually had a clue.  I once emailed Giles after a particularly humiliating experience in my hometown.  I had gone to the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum).  There was an exhibit there of James Tissot drawings of London.  Newly initiated into art by GW, I thought this would be interesting.  I paid my money and looked around, but was unable to find the exhibit.  I asked a man, who was clearly a volunteer, because he was wearing "the jacket", for directions to the Tissot exhibit (pronouncing it "Tiss-oh"). The oh so pretentious volunteer said loudly "WHO?"  I repeated the name, and he said, even more loudly "WHO?? Oh, you mean Tiss-otte--he screamed in the most condescending voice he could conjure! I was humiliated.  I felt my face flushing and I felt like a common pleb. I wanted to run out of there at light speed.  I explained to Giles in an email that THIS is why people like me avoided art museums.  I never felt as if I belonged, or had enough knowledge or culture to set foot in such places.  Giles' response was, first of all, that I had pronounced the name correctly and secondly that the volunteer was an absolute ass.  He then said that he would be using my story to illustrate something or other in something he was writing for somebody.  Whatever.  The point is that I felt redeemed.  I wish Giles had been with me that day...that would have been so cool, because he would have taken that guy down, and run over him like a lawnmower.

Knowing Giles for 15 years or so has changed my life.  Whenever I was to visit a city for the first time, I would contact Giles.  Judy:  Giles--I'm going to a conference in LA.  I have 1/2 day free.  Which museum would you recommend. --Judy Giles:  Judy--1/2 day is too short to go through the Getty.  I think it would overwhelm you.  Go to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  You'll enjoy it.  They also have a lovely courtyard and cafe where you can enjoy a nice cake and a cup of tea or a drink. --Giles.  I went to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  It was amazing. I had the best day.  And the same when I went to Kansas City, and Rome, and Florence, etc. etc.  I actually felt privileged when Giles was off to his trip to Egypt, and asked ME where I thought he should go...

At this point in my life, and thanks to Giles, I can spot a Rembrandt across the room.  I notice the large brushstrokes in the paintings of Frans Hals.  I know that Cuyp is not the Dutch word for cow, but rather the name of Dutch artist (who apparently likes to paint cows).  I can identify a Ruisdael landscape.  When I see weird trees I know it's a Hobbema.  More interestingly, I look at space.  It never occurred to me to think about the museum itself.  Giles seemed to be the world's leading expert in the the history of museums.  I remember when he told me that, the first summer I met him.  I looked at him as if he was nuts.  I had no idea there was such a thing as an expert in the History of Museums.  I know it now.  And it makes total sense.

Over the years, Giles would say on occasion:  Judy, I must have you over to my house for dinner.  My response was:  Giles, when the English say that, what they really mean is "I will never invite you to my house, but I'm being polite by saying this."  But he actually did invite me, along with some great friends of ours.  We had a blast.  And he invited me again, along with the students in his class.  And again. with a group we were taking to the cricket match at the Oval around the corner.  He was generous, he was kind, and he was hilarious.  I had so much fun with Giles.

This week, after learning about Giles' death, I've been walking around in a fog.  Like everyone else who knew him, I cannot quite accept that I will never see him again.  I am not yet able to grasp that he will not come in on Tuesday at about 9:17 (two minutes late for his class), make a slightly sardonic and yet affectionate comment to Nick and me as we're chatting in the office, and then go into his classroom.  It has been many years since I have shed this many tears, and because of it, I find I have a constant headache that will not subside.  I haven't really slept since hearing this awful news.  A light has been extinguished in the month of November--the month that we traditionally remember the dead.  I find the grief sometimes too much to deal with, and that alone surprises me.  I loved Giles.  And yet, he was not my closest friend, and I certainly was not his.  But as I think about it, reflecting upon why I am so deeply affected by his passing, it comes down to the fact that, in knowing him, my life was changed.  I gained a new interest...a new appreciation for art.  I came to understand how it is transcendent, and how it allows us to transcend--important for someone like me who was once a theologian.  I have gained another passion, and all because Giles Waterfield, a man who already had an incredibly full life, thought enough of me to embrace me and include me into his circle of friends.  I am a better person for having known him...Giles made me feel important and significant.  No--that's not right--Giles helped me to see the truth that I am important and significant.

I have a lot of photos of Giles, but I'm posting some of my favorites.  The first is one of our best trips to Amsterdam.  We had a blast.  The other three pics are from March of 2015.  I ran into Giles one day at our centre and told him I was off to my first trip to Florence the following weekend.  He exclaimed that he, too, was going to be in Florence and suggested we meet up.  Naturally, I was ecstatic.  We met on the Oltrano side of the Ponte Santa Trinita.  From there we went off to lunch, and then to look at the apartment where he was staying.  I told him I was off then to visit the Basilica di Santa Croce and he thought he'd like to come along.  It was there that I took these photos, and I remember thinking that I have never laughed so hard. Giles wanted to pose, and look "studious and serious" but I kept laughing, and this made him laugh.  Therefore, he thought the pictures would not be satisfactory, so he kept ordering me not to make him smile, and I kept snapping away.  I ended up with three pictures that look fantastic, but still, when I look at them, I cannot help but smile and think about what an amazing day I had in Firenze, with the inimitable, unique and amazing Giles Waterfield.

Dutch Art of the 17th c. Class in Amsterdam


I'm not really reading this book
Stop making me laugh, this is serious

I don't know really how to end this blog  post.  It was written out of grief, as I have spent the week not wanting to accept what I know is true--that Giles is gone.  And yet he is here, in my many memories.  He will be present every time I step foot into the National Gallery, or pass by a museum, or see the large brush strokes of a Frans Hals painting.  I will remember him when I look at the ceramic Irish cow he gave me (whom I named Cuyp).  Tonight, these thoughts do not give me consolation, but I know that time is the healer of all wounds.  But as I write, I am compelled to acknowledge that, along with near inconsolable grief, I have been granted an incredible privilege, for I am counted among those who had the opportunity to know this amazing man, to learn from him and to be a recipient of his kindness, counsel, wisdom and friendship, not to mention his sardonic and dry wit.  I will never stop missing him, the sparkle in his eyes, and the adorable half smile.  I will never forget him, for he has changed my life for the good.   Requiescat in pacem, lovely Giles.

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