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Musings in the Graveyard

Last weekend I was up in the Cleveland area for a nephew’s birthday and when I got into town I stopped by the local cemetery where my mother is interred.  It’s the first time I’ve been there since the funeral last October.  I had agonized about going the last time I was in the area in early May, and at the last minute had decided against it and had gotten off the highway altogether to spare myself further travail.  This time I was more resolute.

Her grave marker has now been installed.  I had no idea what it would look like – she picked it out herself and ordered it before she died.  She was always practical when it came to such matters.  After locating it I stood there for a while, fidgeting in the noon sun. It was just about the size, shape and style that I would expect her to select – even to the choice of the pinkish granite.  Someone had put a pot of begonias in front of it.  I was sad but not ravaged with grief – I have done my share of mourning already. I was dismayed, however, when I looked down and saw how the grass planted over the grave was a much darker green than the grass around it, and that highlighted the fact I was standing right on top of her remains.  I quickly moved back several more feet.

Eventually I looked about the area – the “new” addition to the cemetery, that I was not as familiar with (the original part hosting the  graves of my father and his parents).  A few rows over I recognized a last name, and went over to get a closer look.  It was the grave of the grandparents of a long-lost high school friend of mine.  There were other names I recognized, too.  And nearby was the grave of a guy I actually graduated with.  In fact, his glossy black gravestone was emblazoned with a medallion that had his senior year photograph on it, which I have never seen done before.  I had no clue he was buried there, but had already known he was deceased – he died right before my 10-year class reunion, committing suicide in a Las Vegas hotel room.  Some serious story there, obviously, but one we will never know.  Wistfully I remembered the last time we were in class together – the 7th and 8th grade gifted class that substituted for regular English in junior high at the time.  I recalled him sitting at the back of the room, clowning around.  He seemed happy-go-lucky then.  Geez, what happened?

I wandered around for a bit more before I left. When I talked to my brother later I asked if it was he that had brought the flowers, and he said no, it was one of my mom’s long-time best friends.  He claimed she goes there literally three times a week (though considering she is very Catholic and European, her habits regarding graveyards are culturally much more old-school than the average American’s). When telling this bit to my wife when I got back, I unexpectedly teared up a bit.  Such loyalty.  And to think my mom could inspire it…   It’s hard to imagine what visiting the graves of my friends would be like.  But, assuming I am “lucky”, that is what I will be doing eventually…

Story Time

    Let me tell you a story. See the above photo of the toy wooden train?  As a child I would pass by it daily; it was placed on a rather high shelf in our living room.  It belonged to my mother, oddly enough, and I wasn’t allowed to play with it, even though I was occasionally permitted to pick it up and examine it.  I suppose when I was little I never questioned why my mother would have a little toy train, considering that she wasn’t sentimental and frowned on the entire notion of keepsakes, but then again, we tend not to question the things we see every day; they just become part of what the world is.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I was told its provenance.

   But I have gotten ahead of myself.  For the little train is actually the end of the story, not its beginning.

  Here is the beginning: Near the end of World War II, in the western portion of Germany, there was a forced labor camp near where my mother lived.  Its population consisted of Russian prisoners of war.  As the war began to draw to a close, the Allies drew closer and closer to the location of the camp.  The guards began to grow nervous.  They knew that very soon they would have to retreat and abandon or close the camp.  They were understaffed, and didn’t have enough men to prevent the prisoners from escaping while they were on the road, and they couldn’t very well turn enemy combatants loose (an offense which would certainly have merited a court martial in the eyes of their superiors).  So, the pragmatic solution – and how often during war is the pragmatic solution also the most inhumane? – was to machine gun them all, and withdraw after the killing had been carried out.  Such acts had already been performed who knows how many times during the war...

  My grandfather happened to be in town at the time – not a common occurrence, as you will see.  Although already middle-aged when the war began, eventually he received the dreaded summons to report for duty in an artillery unit on the Russian Front.  But unlike millions of his countrymen, he refused to go along with the dictates of the State.  He said to his wife, “no one is going to shove a gun into my hands and force me to kill another human being”.  So he failed to report for duty, went AWOL, and reluctantly left his wife and two young daughters.  At some point he fell in with a group of forgers who could make the documents the Nazis required for anyone who traveled.  He returned home when he could, using a forged copy of a permit saying he was a soldier on leave, but he could do this only rarely so suspicion would not be aroused, because one could never know who might report you to the feared Gestapo.

  It was not in his best interest to speak out.  Just calling attention to himself was dangerous.  The resulting scrutiny might uncover his subterfuge.  But he couldn’t sit by and watch an atrocity without trying to do something to prevent it.  It was not in his nature.  The details I was given are quite sparse, so I have to mentally fill in the blanks – I envision the Russians shuffling out to the side of the road to stand in a ditch or a nearby field, and lining up, waiting to be shot, with a handful of soldiers toting their automatic rifles stoically getting into place.  My grandfather approached them and pleaded with them not to do this; it was wrong, it would be immoral to just slaughter all these men  - even wars were not to be conducted in this way.  The guards were not swayed by his arguments – the Russians were loose ends that had to be tied up or else they would be risking themselves.

  So my grandfather proposed an alternative: he offered to escort the prisoners, numbering three hundred– by himself – on an overnight hike to the next town, which still had facilities that could hold them. It would take all night to get there on foot, but he guaranteed that he would transport them all without any escaping. The guards told him that if any escaped, he would be the one held responsible, and then granted his request.

  Grandfather had the prisoners gather round, and told them, “Fellows, I am going to guide you and we are going to march on over to the next town tonight.  I gave my personal assurance that none of you would try to escape – if any of you do, I will probably be killed.  Do you all agree to stay together and not try anything?”  They immediately agreed.  So Grandfather – the lone German and unarmed - and the prisoners set off and walked through the night, and the next day he showed up at the neighboring camp with all three hundred men accounted for, not a single one missing.  It’s a little hard to believe that none slipped away in the darkness, or worse, tried to kill him.  It would have been so simple to do.  But somehow there was enough trust and rational self-interest on the part of the prisoners, that they recognized that he had provided them their best chance to survive.

  When the Allies did come through a relatively short time later, they successfully liberated the prisoners and they were all able to return to their homeland.  But before they did, they expressed their heartfelt gratitude to my grandfather, who made their survival possible.  They had next to nothing to give him, of course, but a few of the Russians who were skilled at woodworking made some toys in the camp workshop and said to my grandfather that these were gifts for his children.

  And so this little wooden train was made by a captive Russian for my mother, who kept it all her life. It is the only remaining proof of a good deed done by a brave man who could have turned his head and looked the other way.  And this post is, to the best of my knowledge, the only record of this deed.  I wrote it to prevent it from being forgotten altogether and lost in the fog of the past.  For tales must be told, else they fade away forever.

  The bigger the war, the more heroes it typically produces, and WWII certainly is no exception.  During the struggle untold numbers of people performed great deeds, as well as unmentionable ones.  My grandfather did not participate in any historic battles.  He never took out an enemy pillbox, or carried a wounded comrade to safety, or tossed a grenade into a tank, or shot down a fighter plane.  Nevertheless, he was a hero all the same.

It is unfortunate, if undeniably true, that the German language has had comparatively little sway over English in the Modern Era.  Sure, ye Olde English was primarily based on the tongue spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons in the Dark Ages, but since then Latin, French and even Greek have prevailed over German when it comes to influencing what we speak.

Still, occasionally a term from der Vaterland sneaks through into common parlance because it is just so succinct and apt in distilling a concept to its essence.  And that is the strength of the German language: its precision. A German word always means one thing, and smaller words can easily be combined to refine and modify that thing so that it is exactly described.  For example, there's the word Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung, which is a meeting held to hear suggestions for improvement.  Furthermore, German pronunciation is always the same, unlike English, which can be context-dependent and has a multitude of exceptions to every rule.  (There’s no equivalent Germanic confusion inherent in our words like “wound”, “wind” or “lead”.)  Latin may contribute a lot regarding the law, and French may be well-suited to describing social situations of unusual complexity, but nothing beats German when it comes to framing concepts. Take Zeitgeist, for example. Or Angst, Realpolitik, and Weltanschauung (‘world-view’).

By now, most everyone knows Schadenfreude, the feeling of joy one has at another's misfortune.  Less well known, but just as useful to me personally, is Weltschmerz: the sadness one feels when contemplating how far the real world is from the ideal world.  A recent term I’ve learned that has become a favorite is Sehnsucht – an ardent yearning that is rooted in the inconsolable longing for a far-off or even unearthly land that might best be considered a golden, idealized version of home, a perfect place where presumably you would feel at peace and happy, but which ultimately is an unattainable utopian state.  In order to feel this you must be discerning enough to realize the incompleteness and imperfection of reality, so it is an affliction that only torments the sensitive and perceptive. In other words, people like me, because Lord, I don't even know how many times I've felt that…

But my latest discovery tops them all: “Backpfeifengesicht” means “a face in need of a slap.” Really – how often could you have used that term in the last month alone? And the example I found on a German/English website:

         Der US-amerikanische Politiker Joe Liebermann hat so ein Backpfeifengesicht!
            “The American politician Joe Lieberman has a face you'd just like to punch!”

Man – a face in need of a slap.  I can’t believe I didn’t learn this years ago.  Clearly my mother was holding out on me, which is odd because she did more than her fair share of slapping.

A Peak Behind the Curtain, Part V

Stage Five:
And now the magic happens. Behold! Patches of sunlight filtering through the partially seen leafy canopy are actually composed of three layers of paint, as the first layer was too golden, the corrective second coat made it to too blinding white and a third coat, of just the barest amount of black (smudged on with my fingertips) was required to get the desired quality of hue and texture.  The light plays along the surface of the tree, accentuating its curves.  At first glance this comes close to achieving that impossible dream of the stunning illusion: the planar surface inexplicably transformed so that it possesses the THIRD DIMENSION.

The middle ground issue – which has proven so prickly to me in the past that I have deigned to omit it from compositions altogether - has been resolved in a way that makes sense, although it brightens the painting more than I would like.  But hey, if you are going to get a rainbow, you need strong, direct sun.

The fat black cat, now obviously revealed to be a portrait of our cat Mickey, is done with an effort to communicate his characteristic solemn sensitivity. I am satisfied this image captures at least part of his exquisitely complex nature. His brother Chester, is seen lagging behind (and distracted), as befits his timid yet youthful nature. How many times have I stared at his fur to discover the secret to that tabby coloring?

Note the subtle additions to the rainbow: in an attempt to make it seem translucent I gingerly painted OVER the rainbow to make it seem you are seeing through it to the objects BEHIND.  That effect came out rather better than expected, although I wish I had been able to achieve softer edges to the rainbow.  And damn it, the different pigments making up the spectrum certainly have different intensities that I was unable to equalize, as I was primarily concerned with all the colors being geometrically proper and parallel to each other along the arc.

There was a conceptual tug-of war that simmered throughout the entire process: should all the vibrant colors be reserved for the rainbow alone to make it more stunning, or should other colorful elements be added elsewhere to provide a balance? As painting went on I veered from the former to the latter. I mean,  no forest scene is complete without a fungal representative, and if I am going to put in toadstool, it is darn well going to be red.  And then the fern intended for the foreground become a flush of bluebells.  It IS spring after all. I will leave it to the viewer to decide if this decision was the right one.

So it’s done.  Or rather, I’m done with it. The working title is “The Feline Forest Adventure”. Not a bad effort overall. Reasonably successful, despite some flawed execution, here and there.  But why should I expect art to be different from any other activity or outcome in life?


A Peak Behind the Curtain, Part IV

Stage Four
The leafy canopy and assorted foliage has appeared.  This is done in the traditional impasto technique, which is just using thicker opaque layers of paint.  This blend of two styles - the use of multiple thin transparent layers coupled with single opaque thick layers of paint, is probably the most individualistic quality of my painting style. Anyway, this was simply done in but two colors: the leaves hit by the sun, on the “outside” of the tree are using the light green, and are necessarily obscured by leaves of a much darker green that darken up the entire work considerably and create a more enclosed, intimate space in the foreground.

Yes, there is a rainbow. Not sure if it turned out the way I wanted.  I was tempted to place something fantastical at the base of it – like the proverbial pot o’ gold, for instance.  But the kitschy side of me is pretty much kept under lock and key and under strict guard. In my mind, one of the best things about the rainbow is actually that it distracts from the as yet unconvincing water of the stream below it.   In my experience, the toughest things to paint by far, and by that I mean render accurately so that they look recognizable and even realistic, are items that possess no color of their own, but only reflect and/or refract the light that hits them, like metal, glass and water.  So I have heaped a lot of work on myself here – the turbulent waterfall appearing white to indicate its aerated state, the relatively placid open stretches of the stream, still enough to cast reflections, and the water droplets in the air that refract the sunlight to produce the rainbow. Why am I making things hard for myself, again?  I should have just thrown in a jumble of rocks, like the original photograph had…

There are more subtle additions at this stage as well, and these are just as important in the long run: more applications of black in the foreground have continued to darken the rocks, the thinnest layer of blue has been applied to the tree to cool it down (it is in the shade, after all!), the water has been “roughed in” on the right (only using  three layers of paint!), with blue in the background slowly transitioning to green in the foreground (as it would be reflecting the canopy directly overhead).  The rocks around the waterfall are yet woefully underdeveloped – that has to be the most troublesome region of the painting, and I shall have to tackle it next.

This is about 85% done.  But that last 15% - that can be a killer.


A Peak Behind the Curtain, Part III

Stage Three:
At last, this is starting to head in the right direction. Judiciously adding some more black to indicate shading and texture is like sculpting, giving form to the blankness, some articulation to the yawning void.  And so the artist imparts a fleeting sense of purpose, giving a semblance of order to existence.   There are discrete objects revealing themselves: rocks, waterfalls, reflections. Still looks like a water color, though.  Will persevere, despite possibility of failure…


A Peak Behind the Curtain, Part II

Stage Two:
Hm.  Well.  This is looking fairly awful - like the first attempt at a water color by a third-grader.  Rather a humble beginning here, which is why I invariably prohibit the viewing public from seeing my paintings until they are 100% complete.

Keep in mind that everything at this point has only a single coat of paint.  The lighter areas in the foreground will become darker and richer as more layers are applied.  More tricky are the areas that are already quite dark – much harder to lighten up an area than darken it! Still, there is supposed to be a lot of shade and shadow here, so perhaps it will work out.

In an attempt to transition from brown in the foreground to blue in the back ground  I have made some questionable color choices.  The brown is too brown (not enough gray), the gray is too gray (not enough blue), etc.  And just what is up with that weird aquamarine color?  Hopefully it will be mostly covered up or obscured by foliage, when all is said and done.  Hopefully.

I shall strengthen my resolve and press on.



A Peak Behind the Curtain, Part I

Over the next week, I am going to treat you all to a peak behind the curtain, as I show an oil painting in varying (and hopefully increasing) stages of completion, so you can garner a better understanding of the artistic process (for me, anyway).  I have been meaning to do this for several years now, but I haven’t because quite frankly I haven’t been able to devote much time for painting and when I do start a painting, by the time I think to take a photograph of it, it is already half finished and so a useful chronicle can no longer be made.  Well, this time I remembered, so hopefully this will be found interesting, if witnessing the handwringing I go through to create Art can be considered interesting. Many thanks to Carie Ketz, for supplying the photo which contained the raw material for my inspiration.

Stage One:
OK, the composition – intended to be a magical forest scene - is pretty much set, and the foundation laid by doing a fairly detailed sketch.  This type of painting demands such an approach, as I will be doing quite a bit of glazing, where I use multiple thin, transparent layers of paint.  It’s sort of a glorified “paint by numbers” approach – or like when you were a kid and used crayons in a coloring book.  I am using a primed Masonite board instead of a canvas (which has more texture than I would like for this style of painting).  The sketch is made: the proportions and positions of the various elements of the composition are assiduously set and refined, and then sprayed with a fixative spray so the sketch can be painted over without it smudging, smearing, or the graphite floating off the surface and migrating into the paint. A lot of the major creative decisions have already been made.  I now have a pretty good idea already what the painting should look like when complete, although obviously color selections could change.

As you can see, I have already put brush to board here: a thin application of black paint – which looks gray, because the white of the board is shining through it – has been applied to define the beech tree that dominates the composition (and indeed is its  raison d'être)   This violates the usual method of painting – especially landscape painting – where you work from back to front.  You do the background first, since you usually end up painting over some of it, and it has very little detail.  However, I am in a position now where I feel like I can bend the rules a bit.  Since the branches, and especially the roots, go all over the place, painting this first helps subdivide the work into smaller chunks that I can paint at leisure and tackle one at a time.  (Plus, it’s more enjoyable to tackle the most interesting stuff first!)



After-Dinner Scene (A Play in One Act)

Wife: “I thought you said you weren’t going to eat any more sausage.”

Me: “I didn’t eat any more sausage.”

Wife: “Yes you did.”

Me: “What are you talking about?  I am putting this half-sausage in the fridge right now.”

Wife: “But that’s my leftover sausage.”

Me: “Yes, and look at me not eating it!”

Wife: “Yeah, but before you still had your own half sitting on your plate.”

Me: “When I said I wasn’t going to eat any more sausage, I was referring to sausage in addition to what I already had.”

Wife: “That’s not what you said!”

Me: “Well, that’s what I meant!  Look, in all the time you’ve known me, have I ever, EVER not finished all the sausage on my plate?  Have I ever put any back because I couldn’t finish my portion?”

Wife: “…”

Me: “See, it’s like in The Godfather, Part II:  ‘Don’t you know that’s an impossibility – that that could never happen? Don’t you know that I would use all of my power to prevent something like that from happening?’”

And fade.

This Is What The Future Will Look Like

Over at The Spearhead, Bill Price recently posted an article with the Title "Are Our Cities Sustainable?"
As this is a topic I have been concerned with for some time, I thought I would take a stab at it myself:

“Are our Cities Sustainable?”

Well, the short answer is, yes. But really, that is the wrong question, I think America’s cities will always persist in some form. What is not sustainable is our lifestyle. The hollowing out of the middle class that has been going on – stealthily at first, and now obviously for over a decade – is symptomatic of my conclusion.

Now, a city like Seattle may not be a typical, representative case. I am used to cities like Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Toledo, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and so on, where a core that has been rotten since the 60′s and ringed with an innerbelt/outerbelt is somewhat sustained by an array of suburbs around the perimeter of the metropolitan area. Cheap energy, cheap land and government subsidized highways enabled most of these suburbs to be built in the first place. But suburbia has reached its high water mark. Even with cheap gas, only so many people are willing to commute 45 minutes one-way to their job – which may not even be downtown, but “across town” (i.e., a suburb on the other side). Wait until gas becomes $8-10/gallon (without a commensurate rise in wages) AND interest rates go up at the same time, making home owning more difficult. And put the student loan debt of the Millenials on top of that and what do you get?

This is what you get: a nation of renters. Renters forced to live in the city because proximity to whatever shitty jobs they have will be a more important financial consideration than it has been the past 50 years. We will probably go back to one-car families like in the 1930′s and 40′s as well, I shouldn’t wonder.

Now go a step further – with lower wages and less property and income taxes coming in, do you think cities and states are going to be able to maintain their infrastructure in the way we have taken for granted our entire lives? I highly doubt it. It will be like a supernova collapsing back in on itself. There will be a managed decline, something like Detroit: difficult choices will be made by technocrats at a high level (with “community dialogues”, of course) and certain roads and bridges will be demolished or left to deteriorate into ruin, much like old disused railways were left to Mother Nature. And I can guarantee that the ones selected for the chopping block will be the ones that enabled commuters in a far-flung community (that didn’t contribute their income taxes to the parent city anyway) to get to their jobs.

Fleeing to the suburbs worked fine for a while, and that’s why the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s saw such explosive growth in that type of community. But the primary reason for this growth – white flight – has been rendered pretty much obsolete now. With the old housing projects being systematically demolished and Section 8 vouchers dispensed like candy by HUD these days, the very undesirables you seek to isolate your children from are now being transplanted right into the middle of your overpriced neighborhood! I have seen this happen – and it still is happening – on Cleveland’s east side. Slowly but surely, first suburbs like Bedford and Maple Heights, then South Euclid and Orange, next Solon and Twinsburg, and so on become more and more black. Inevitably, crime goes up, school performance goes down, school levies fail, school performance goes down some more, home values go down along with property taxes. Meanwhile, the towns put on a happy face, accept their awards for improving diversity and double their police force – if they can afford to. Doubtless there are a few safe enclaves here and there, but it is like finding a public building that still has a plaque of the Ten Commandments hanging in it: sooner or later some douche will barge in, make a big ruckus over how offended they are, and CHANGES WILL BE MADE.

I don’t know what the answer is. For the affluent, they either move even further out, and telecommute or maybe they always traveled a lot for their job anyway. Then they put their kids in a private school. Or they live in a swank townhouse or luxury condo close to everything important downtown. And put their kids in private school. In the former case they may be more physically isolated or in a gated community that offers greater protection. In the latter case, additional security guards are hired to supplement the regular constabulary – and you get a place like Bratenahl, a tiny suburb on the east side of Cleveland (population 1,184, median family income: $104,987) surrounded by a sea of ghetto neighborhoods. Bascially, American cities will become much more like the ones in South America, with an elite that protects and enrich themselves along with a vast, manipulated, ignorant lower class that lives day-to-day and hand-to-mouth.

In the coming decades, most of the rest of us will either move back into the city or make do in a degraded, “inner-ring” suburb to save on transportation costs where we will rub elbows with an increasing flow of Third-World immigrants (Columbus is getting quite the sizable Somali community, which the city leaders are quite proud of – hurray!), imported to offset the declining native birthrate in a misguided effort to prop up the Ponzi schemes of Social Security and other such government “benefit” programs.  More parents with intact families will decide to homeschool their children.  Social mobility will continue to decrease.  City services will be poor. There will be frequent power outages and water main breaks. The roads will not be good. You will take the bus a lot more than you expected. You will live paycheck to paycheck. You will wait months to see your primary care physician and try to save money so you can get prescription meds. You will carry a firearm on you as you go about your daily business. Your kids will not attend university, they will get any post-high school education at the local community college or take courses online.  You will refrain from racking up big credit card bills and you and your family will make do with less of – everything. Christmas will have fewer gifts. Vacations will be quite modest in scope – no overseas trips for you! Expensive afterschool activities for the kids will be cut – no more dance and violin lessons for princess! - and they will play soccer or basketball at a local city park instead (if it is reasonably safe). You will go back to having one television. Your closets will have fewer clothes. Your trash will have less discarded food in it when it goes to the curb. You will keep your place colder than you want in the winter, and warmer than you want in the summer. And so on. And you will never retire. You will work until you drop – unless you can be declared disabled.

Now, the smart and resourceful always have an advantage when it comes to making major life decisions. But the average Joe that furnishes the bedrock on which societies must stand – he is the one in trouble, and to some extent the rest of us must go along for the ride…



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