Phil Provenzale: It’s about the Little Things; or Knowing a Person that you Don’t Know

2013
08.11
My cousin and her husband Phil

My cousin and her husband Phil

How does one know a person yet not know a person? We all know so many people that we don’t know, and one day we will wish we had. But – is it possible? Perhaps not, at least in the current arrangement of our lives and our world. It’s all too big and too fast.  Two things happened last week at a funeral I went to: I finally got to know my cousin Andrea’s husband better, and he was the deceased. And I got a nugget to chew on regarding the current arrangement of my life.

My cousin’s husband Phil died last week.  He was only 61, but he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for many, many years and to say he fought this disease valiantly, with faith and spirit, with optimism and courage, would be an understatement.  He continued to work during his extended illness at his job as a senior vice president at 20th Century Fox International (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/fox-film-executive-phil-provenzale-599700).  But other than knowing he had something to do with the film industry, I only knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil.  He was a person I knew yet didn’t know.

It’s funny how we all know people differently. I knew Phil as the handsome, tall young man marrying Andrea at one of the most beautiful weddings my husband and I attended.  Then I knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil, whom I spoke to in pleasantries about not much of consequence at family occasions – birthdays, weddings, celebrations, and, as the years passed, funerals.  Since we did not live in the same cities, we didn’t have day-to-day encounters where we would know each other in a more comprehensive manner.  We kept up with what was happening in the families but that’s it.

Until we went to Phil’s funeral and I got to know Phil better.  And I found out that his life was about the little things, and now I want to make the rest of my life about the little things too.  Here’s what I mean.

First, we know Phil was excellent at his job because if he hadn’t been he wouldn’t have had it, but no one mentioned that Phil was good at his job. No one listed his accomplishments.  No one talked about the blockbuster deals he made or the financial successes he produced. They talked about how nice Phil was. They talked about Phil the incredible human being. Over and over.  The words I heard were nice. Kind. Universally respected.  Good manners. Loved. Charm. Warmth. Gentle. Unconditional love.

Nice.  Not nice like, yeah, he was a nice guy. But NICE. A woman who had been with him for over 16 years at Fox and at Carolco Pictures before that said that he greeted every single employee in his division every morning when he got to work before entering his own office – every day. I got the impression this was not just a cursory hello. And that it was “required” that everyone say goodnight to him or he to them before leaving. Why? Because he genuinely thought it was important to take the time to know people and care about them and let them know that they were more than an interchangeable body at a desk. He thought it was important to treat everyone with respect, and in turn he was highly respected himself.

One person who spoke said Phil had a candy dish and found he couldn’t put it in the normal position on his desk because if his back was turned to the computer, people snuck by and took some quietly so they wouldn’t disturb him. He had to place it on his desk deep in his office behind the monitor, forcing people to actually come in and face him to take candy.  In other words, human interaction was important to Phil.  He was never too important or too busy.

These are all seemingly little things – good manners – hellos, goodbyes, respect, caring – that in aggregate add up to something bigger.  Like ten plus ten equals twenty, the little things add up to something bigger.

The priest officiating at the service talked about the tall, quiet guy who was always helping, ushering, cleaning up, doing what needed to be done.  He didn’t know his name.  The tall guy didn’t require that his name be known. Of course, as the priest later learned, it was Phil. Doing the little things.

And someone spoke from Phil and Andrea’s son’s elementary school.  Their son is in college now but Phil and Andrea will never be forgotten at that elementary school because apparently they have virtually created it. Andrea volunteered there when their son was a student, and when she saw a need, she told Phil, and the school would mysteriously find a new copy machine in the office, or a teacher would all of a sudden have something needed in the classroom.  All done quietly without fanfare.  And it continued long after their son left that school.

At the graveside service I talked to several of Phil’s colleagues and I heard the same things over and over – how absolutely incredible a person he was, how kind he was, how well respected he was, until I pictured him head and shoulders above everyone walking down the hall, and he was already tall enough to be head and shoulders above everyone. 

I think I could tell you some other things about Phil too, even though no one said them.  If anyone who worked with Phil is reading this, you can tell me if I’m right or not.  I would guess that Phil would do anything in the office that he would ask someone else to do from making coffee to fixing a paper jam in the copy machine. I expect he would do anything he could to assist an employee in a family emergency.  He probably acknowledged his employees birthdays. He was probably the first to arrive and the last to leave.  All the little things that add up.

What does all this mean besides the fact that Phil Provenzale was truly one of the finest people I didn’t know? I don’t know that I could have known him. Living in a different town, even not too far away, seems like a continent when you are raising a family and then having grandchildren, working, taking care of parents – all those things that make a life. 

I can, however, look at the people I know here, where I live, and ask myself if I know them.  I have a feeling I may know a few too many people that I don’t know.  And I can take a lesson from what made Phil so remarkable and polish up my manners.  I have the inner sincerity in caring about others but I think I trend towards impatience when it comes to showing it.  Or am just not present enough and forget to show it.

So then, if I can keep my head together, that’s two takeaways that will, I hope, make a difference.  But there is one more.  The aforementioned nugget to chew on about the arrangement of my life.  My husband and I are at that stage where we thought we had made our last move but due to some recent experiences are rethinking that.  And the question becomes – stay in Bakersfield or not?

The nugget to chew on is this.  At the funeral, the priest talked about this regarding Phil. He talked about the impatience and impermanence of our society, our need for the next fastest computer model, the most updated phone, the bigger house, the more upscale neighborhood, and so on. He talked about the lack of roots that keep people from knowing each other through the years, neighbors getting together over time, and so forth. And he talked about Phil’s constancy.  How long Phil and Andrea lived in their house without the need to move up, leading to continuity in the neighborhood and with neighbors; how they stayed committed to their son’s school long after he left and thus over time made a great difference in that school and especially its library; how a long involvement with the church made a difference there – and how all of that contributed to stability as a family.

So – leave Bakersfield someday?  Maybe not. We have some roots here. Our lungs have adapted. Something to think about.  We may for family reasons but it’s not a given. There are reasons for permanence.

Two takeaways and a nugget.  Lots to think about, thanks to Phil. I’m glad I got to know you this much, Phil.  It’s not enough, and it’s too late, but under the circumstances, it’ll have to do.

 

Why Wait? Do it Now.

2013
04.24

Why wait?  I opened up Facebook the other day to see a friend’s status staring at me, reflecting back one of my basic operating principals.

I determined this to be good operating policy a long time ago for a not very profound reason.  We were living in Virginia and had three small children and a small budget.  Or perhaps it was North Carolina when we had three smaller children, an even smaller budget, and many jobs between us.  At any rate, Mark’s parents flew us out to California for a significant family event and we were going to take the kids to Disneyland.  You can imagine the excitement and buildup to this magnificent event.

The question was when to go – at the start of our trip or near the end.  Nothing prevented us from going near the start – we just didn’t.  And in the last week, Mark got sick.  Very sick.  Just a cold, flu-type thing, but he was weak and Disneyland was in real jeopardy.  It came down to the wire and he thought he was perhaps well enough but we might need a wheelchair to push him if his energy flagged, and then it rained.  His dad said it was folly to drive from Ventura to Anaheim in the rain and try to visit Disneyland.  We insisted so his dad insisted on coming with us and doing the driving.

We went, I’m sure the kids had a good time, but I have no memory of the visit at all.  My main memory is kicking myself for not going right away at the start of the trip.  Ever since that day so long ago, I have determined not to postpone doing things that are important.

Of course, there are varying degrees of import.  When you are young, broke, and have the chance of a paid-for Disneyland trip for your kids, that’s one kind of important.  Nothing really hangs in the balance.  Then there is the other extreme, when life hangs in the balance.

I suppose that could mean telling people what you’ve always wanted to tell them, something we always think might be a good idea but never quite get around to.  But when my mother-in-law died, my daughter Karen wondered why we wait until people die to say what we think of them.  She thought we should tell each other what we thought of each other right now – so my husband, our three girls, and I wrote individual essays about each other saying just that. It was hard work – that’s four thoughtful essays each – but I bound them in a booklet called Family Tributes and it was and is something precious to have.  As I reread, it’s also become something to live up to.

A more active interpretation of DO IT NOW is just that – do it now, don’t wait until life hangs in the balance.  About eight years ago I told my husband I would be traveling and I hoped he would come with me.  I was watching too many people in my school district save up and wait until retirement to start traveling, at which time they or their spouses dropped dead.  Literally.  And I watched a math teacher stand in our break room in bewilderment after his brother, barely 30, had died of a heart attack, wondering why he and his wife were working so many jobs all the time and never spending a dime.  He vowed to take the kids on vacation that summer.  There is never a good time to do something.  There is never the perfect time.  There is never enough money.  You just have to DO it while you have the health and the time and just enough money.

Another way to look at that statement to DO IT NOW is in an everyday kind of way.  My father recently died and in examining his life – which I’m just beginning to do, really – I’m starting to peel away the layers of a complex individual who used every moment doing what he loved.  He wanted to be an artist since he was a child and he was an artist.  From his boyhood until his 80s he thrilled to the feel of a paintbrush in his hand and the excitement of whatever he was working on.  He did what he wanted every day of his life. This is not to say he wouldn’t have liked to have had more money – but he made a choice and knew what he was getting into by doing what he wanted.  His entire life he Did it Now.

I think I just uncovered the key word in this reflection on DO IT NOW – choice.  Just what exactly do you want to be doing so acutely that you must be doing it now?  Coelho means of course what will fulfill your life, and I would wager not all of us can easily answer that question, but it’s worth thinking about.  Our book club just read and discussed his novel The Alchemist, which was about following your personal legend (which seems a contrived way of saying personal dream, but maybe it’s just the translation).  And it’s all well and good to follow your personal dream but if we are all running around pursuing our personal dreams I think chaos will result.

What started as a simple reflection on doing what we want now or we’ll run out of time has morphed into a crazy mess of doing what now, how do we choose what we really want to do, how far do we pursue it even if it means abdicating responsibilities, and are we talking about a grand scale here or just day-to-day.  Knowing that Coelho, who wrote the above quote that caught my eye, wrote The Alchemist, I think his quote is oriented toward the grand scale.  However, The Alchemist is a modern-day fable and we can take the message as we will.

I take it as a reminder on a scale large and small.  We all waste time, or misuse it.  Or fritter it.  But we do it less as we get older and understand that our own mortality is facing us and indeed, if we are going to do it, we’d better get on with it.  The question is, what is IT.  I think our hearts can tell us that answer to some degree.  What do we respond viscerally to? If we don’t know, it really will be too late.

I know what it is for me.  It’s not a grand answer.  It’s seize the moments as they come.  It’s not letting fear hold me back.  It’s keeping the enthusiasm and interest to see and experience.  Small example: I read two weeks ago that this year the bloom of Joshua Trees is unprecedented, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime.  My response?  Must see!  So we made it happen.  Can’t wait.  See, learn, go, do.  Teach.  Kids, grandkids, husband, friends, family.  Give them all experiences.  I think I have done pretty well in the DO IT NOW department.  But I do have to get to Antarctica.  Can’t wait long.  Money, health – who knows how long those things will hold out?  Like Coelho says, one day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time.  I can’t get it all done but as long as I keep thinking, revising, reflecting, paying attention, and seizing the special moments, I think I’ll get enough done now of what I want to do.

#1 Daughter: Longevity and Loss

2013
03.28

Photo by Felix Adamo

#1 daughter.  Susan. That’s how I signed cards to my parents.  It was just a fun thing because I was the first-born, a way to bring some levity to the same old “Love, Susan.”  Now both my parents are dead and #1 daughter takes on a new meaning because a new word takes its place – the M word.  Matriarch.  #1 in birth order. That word has a forbidding sound.  Kind of like the name Bertha, which always intimidated me.

But let’s back up a bit.  I’m 66.  I feel I may be a tad unusual to have had both my parents so long; Mom living until 87 and Dad until 94.  The last 10 years have been a rocky journey demanding a great deal of attention from us kids as Mom and Dad navigated hospitalizations, and then increasing dementia with Mom, while continuing to live independently.  “Independently” was a misnomer but we enabled them to believe it was so because we knew there were no options: they were not going anywhere or having anyone in.  Dad knew, however.  But he was a master of self-deception, not recognizing what he knew to be true.  Yet even that isn’t true, because on a deeper level he knew what he was doing and chose to ignore it.  He was a master of levels.

Mom died just in time.  She was on the verge of major cognitive changes and neither she nor Dad would have handled them well.  But losing her broke Dad’s heart.  It broke all our hearts, but Dad’s irreparably.  He showed so much courage in tackling life and trying to move forward but the struggle was brutal.  I found myself thinking it was time for him to die and wondering how it would come to pass.

And then he planted a rose bush on the coldest day of the winter.  My sister Janine, who was visiting from Alaska, and I were on an adventure – a day trip to Boron and having a wonderful time.

Janine in Boron

Dad had his own unexpected adventure.  We got a phone call from my housekeeper Connie who had been cleaning Dad’s house too – had we seen her glasses?  She had left them at Dad’s house, we said.  And the next thing we knew Connie was at Home Depot with Dad buying a rose bush.  What?  Janine and I were ecstatic!  Maybe this would be our answer – maybe Connie could take care of Dad and that would give a spark to his life!

Before we could even get to the idea we heard that Connie was too much woman for Dad – too “take charge.”  But planting the rose bush on that very cold day almost did him in, and he told us it was time for him to move to a retirement home.  We were so excited!  We had such high hopes for him to have two or three or who knows? even more good years where he would meet people, have more to do, more to eat.  His new apartment was wonderful and he was so happy and excited.  And he only got eight days and he died.

Photo by Felix Adamo

It breaks my heart.  I was not ready.  None of us were.  It’s been a month and I’m still not ready. We wanted Dad to have more.  That’s what we wanted.  And Dad wanted it for us – he was making the very best of what he had but truly, he hadn’t had a happy day since mom died, and he was ready.  It’s not about us.  He lived a remarkable life and he died a remarkable death and that is the end of his life on earth.

My dad, Edward Reep the artist in his studio in the mid-60s

It’s hard to believe he is gone.  And after 27 years in Bakersfield, there will be no more trips out to the house on Crowningshield Drive.  I won’t be driving out two to three times a week and calling every other day or more.  When the phone rings at 7:00 a.m. I won’t be cursing the fact that I’ve been woken up and it won’t be my dad.  Just like that, the pattern breaks.

And I contemplate a new role.  Matriarch.  Does that mean anything nowadays?  My father took his role as patriarch quite seriously.  I’m not sure he actually did anything but he felt a responsibility.  We aren’t a tribal society and we don’t look to the tribal elder for advice or approval or special dispensation for anything and I am not sure I’d want to be giving it anyhow.  But I am the female head of the family and the oldest family member, male or female.  I’d like to think I acquitted myself well in the role of daughter – not perfectly, but well – and now there’s a new role to play.

What family am I head of?  My own little (or not so little) family?  My extended family – sisters, brother, nieces and nephew?  Their spouses?  Cousins? It’s probably a meaningless contemplation but interesting nonetheless as we think about the structure of family and how families are coming back together as finances shrink.  How the wagons are circling and kids are gathering around the campfire again instead of scattering to the four winds.  Or is that the wild winds and the four corners of the earth?

I guess it will sort itself out, probably by disappearing completely as anything to think about at all.  A meaningless contemplation.  I just won’t be #1 daughter any more because there won’t be any more cards to sign.  My role as a daughter is over.  Now it’s part of history.  It’s an overwhelming thought, that the role of daughter is over.  I don’t want to give it up.

Maybe we’re never ready.  We just move on.  But I’ll be all right.  And as Dad said the night before he died, “I’ll be all right.”  I love you, Dad.

Trip to D.C.- Tribute to Richard Holbrooke

2012
07.26

Much earlier this year we took a trip to Washington D.C. and I wrote a series of blog posts talking about viewing my father Edward Reep’s World War Two art work at the Army Art Archives, visiting the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian to view my father’s work in their collection, and a whole series of  posts involving a particular painting of my father’s titled The Shrine and a successful effort to get it on permanent display.  I also talked about our visit to the Newseum and seeing the Berlin Wall, which was so interesting since we had just viewed my father’s paintings at the Army Archives of that very wall, which he painted when he was temporarily commissioned brigadier general and sent on special assignment in the 1970s to paint the wall before it fell.

All of that was tremendously exciting but it’s not why we went.  We went for a tribute to Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who died last year.  For those of you unfamiliar with Holbrooke, you can check out his resume here.  Besides being an Assistant Secretary of State, the person who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords, and many other seemingly impossible achievements, he was to us Dick Holbrooke, our in-country Peace Corps director while we were volunteers in Morocco in 1971-1973.  So we went to Washington to honor him and the founding of CorpsAfrica, a sort of in-country Peace Corps by and for country nationals, by establishing a fund to support the Morrocan in-country director in a pilot program.

Tribute to Richard Holbrooke

We only heard about it a week or so before the cocktail party reception and that was sure a new kind of thing for us to do – say, well, ok, let’s just do this, fly across country for a cocktail reception.  We stayed at an interesting place – the Hotel Harrington.  It was very old, in fact, Washington’s oldest continuously operating hotel.  I might call it marginal but I also think I’ll stay there again because it was cheap and within walking distance of everything – including a Forever 21, H and M, Macys, and other shopping.    We rented a car for an afternoon to go to Fort Belvoir, the Army Art Archives, but other than that, we walked.  (We did not brave eating there.)  I will say that I left lots of clothes in a closet and they mailed them to me, no charge, for which I was very grateful.  Especially when they arrived and I saw I left many more than I remembered.

Hotel Harrington

We enjoyed the reception.  We were the only volunteers from our group who came although one of the staff members attended.  We did have the honor of meeting Rachad Bouhlal, the Moroccan ambassador to the United States and it was his first official function- he had just arrived in the U.S.  His easy, friendly manner belied the sophistication and knowledge these diplomats have.  Besides having a degree in mathematics, speaking three languages, serving as the head of several government agencies and the ambassador to several countries including seven years in Germany, this man is a pilot and founded a wildlife film festival in Morocco.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my life sleepwalking.

We did urge Ambassador Bouhlal to visit us in Bakersfield.  After telling him we lived two years at 38 bis Hassan L’Oukili in Oujda, we told him Bakersfield is like the Oujda of California – under-appreciated but full of interesting things and actually, agriculturally important to his country.  Or potentially so.

My husband Mark Smith and I with Ambassador Bouhlal

So that’s about it.  We did have a lovely dinner at the home of friends Larkin and Katie Tackett and their children Maya and Ben.  They have just recently moved to Austin where we will visit them again as we are driving through there in a couple of months.

Me, Larkin and Katie with Maya and Ben

Finally, I again saw my friend Jack Duvall.  That is so odd.  We went to high school, graduated in 1964, may have seen each other 30 minutes in the intervening 40+ years at reunions (I’m sure that’s an overestimation), and then last October when I went to New York for Occupy Wall Street I heard someone call my name and it was Jack!  We had dinner together several times.  Since he lives in Washington, Mark and I had dinner with him again.  I’m not complaining since Jack was always one of my favorite people. I guess leaving California was the key.

Dinner with Jack Duvall at Bombay Club

Mark and I walked back to our hotel.  It was quite cold, the walk was brisk, but who could complain?  We had scenery like no other.  It was a splendid trip.  And finally – six months later, that concludes the blog posts about this trip!  It’s about time.

Life after Wendy

2012
07.13

Wedding picture of Wendy Wayne and her husband Gene Tackett

Wendy Wayne, one of Bakersfield’s most prominent citizens, lost a 4-year battle with non-Hodgkins lymphona on June 17, 2012.  To call her one of Bakersfield’s most prominent citizens is about as mammoth an understatement as one can make, but this post is not to extoll Wendy’s accomplishments.  I’m writing it because I gave a little speech at a service in her honor at my Temple, Temple Beth El, and so many people have asked me to please post my speech or blog about it, that I’ve decided to do it.  I decided to speak about life after Wendy – how could we go forward and fill her void.  I am just going to post the speech and then summarize the Principles of the LAW: Principles of Life After Wendy.

Here’s how it went:

To stand in front of you and speak words of comfort or words of wisdom or any words at all is not an easy task.  By now so many words have been said and so many tears have been shed.  We are slowly learning how to live without Wendy Wayne in our midst.  We probably shared a similar reaction after the initial stab of heartache and emptiness when we heard the news of Wendy’s passing, when the bottom fell out of our world.  How would we find life possible without her? How could we become like Wendy Wayne, fill the void?  Because Wendy’s presence was that large.

We know about her accomplishments in the community.  Those we can list.  The list is long and impressive, even visionary.  Did you know that list includes something called the Child Passenger Safety Commission, or something along those lines?  That was a long time ago, but I remember it because it was one of many things Wendy tried to involve me in.  I however, didn’t quite get it.  It didn’t sound that exciting, this Child Passenger Safety Commission.  I thought I would pass.  But do you know what it did?  It led to the car seat law!  How many children’s lives has that saved!  Visionary.

But more than the list of accomplishments, and where we feel the ache I think, is in missing the sheer force of Wendy.  And I think that is where the panic sets in that makes us want to fill that void.  Could we?  Let’s imagine a day.  And let’s face it, no matter how pure and purposeful our intentions – my intentions –  were I to vow to arise at 6 each morning, walk 3 miles, do some volunteer work, send out a dozen birthday cards, take someone to a birthday lunch, bake cookies for a sick friend, have a dinner party, visit someone in the hospital, watch the news, write in my journal, read for the book club, PLUS do a full day’s work – realistically, perhaps I could do this for a week.  But – I’d have to take the entire next week off work to recover.  And that’s something Wendy would never do – take time off and be unproductive.

So as quickly as we fall into the panicky idea of ramping up to fill the void Wendy leaves, we fall out of it, realizing we can only be ourselves; but Wendy left us such a wonderful template for life and how to become our better selves.  That we can do.  We can look at the traits that made Wendy Wendy, and consciously enhance them in ourselves, and I think that would be Wendy’s best legacy.

We could call them Principals of the LAW – Law standing for Life after Wendy.

Perhaps one of our Principals of the LAW could be to become better listeners.  Hearing is easy; listening is hard.  But didn’t we all feel special with Wendy, like we were the most interesting person she had ever met? It’s because she listened to us.  Did you ever try to ask Wendy anything and shortly thereafter find that you were talking about yourself again? Wendy always tricked you like that.  Wendy included listening as one of her words of wisdom to the graduating class at CSUB a couple of years ago, telling the graduates that you can’t learn anything if you’re talking.  Not long ago, I said to Wendy, “It’s just amazing how you like everyone.”  She answered, “Let’s just say I find something in everyone.”  Because she listened.

Wendy would insist that we include acts of kindness as a principal of our LAW.  I would say random and not so random acts.  Daily. Could that be so hard? Wendy’s illness was the great challenge of her life and the knowledge that others were doing acts of kindness as well as hugging each other truly did sustain her.  Her spirit can now sustain us if we continue to do acts of kindness both large and small.  As a teacher, I learned that there are no throwaway words or actions, that you never know what is going to make a difference for someone no matter how small or inconsequential it seems to you.

Throughout her illness, Wendy was discouraged at times, in pain, suffering ill effects of the treatment and disease, at times wanting to give up, but she didn’t allow herself to stay in that place for long.  She consistently called herself the luckiest person in the world, and reinforced the joy and good fortune she had received in abundance throughout her life.  That joy and good fortune did not just fall into her lap, however.  She earned it through giving.  She always said that a life of service returned more to her that she gave, and it certainly left us all the better for it.  Maybe we can make that our third principal of the LAW – give to receive.  We can make our light shine just a little bit brighter by giving a little bit more of ourselves.  It’s often said that the harder we work, the luckier we get.  Maybe we can become the luckiest people in the world, too.

When Maya was born, Larkin and Katie’s first child and Wendy’s first grandchild, Wendy shared some expectations and hopes that expressed those qualities I most admired about her and had tried to incorporate in my own life already.  I think we can appropriate those hopes Wendy had for Maya, and of course for all her grandchildren because she now has four and another on the way, and incorporate them into Principals of our LAW #s 4-8, for they can apply to any age…and are most appropriate to filling the void left by Wendy’s passing.

Her hopes are these.  That you nurture your Jewish heritage and continue to make the world a better place; never meet a stranger; extend yourself to all you meet and ensure that doors of opportunity open; have a home that is always available for gatherings and sharing of wisdom; erase the word “no” from your vocabulary because you see only possibilities and never obstacles.

Imagine if we all lived like this.  Imagine a community that behaved like this.  Build a community like this.  Think of it as a challenge Wendy has left us because I think she would like that more than all the words of praise we could offer.  To make a difference is what gives Wendy’s life meaning.  She has done that, no doubt.

However, like it or not, I am going to offer some words of praise because coincidentally, after I wrote this, I found a letter to the editor I wrote in 2005 after it was announced that the Hillel Award was being conferred upon Wendy.  Here’s what it says.  (Read letter – the letter said much the same as what I said here, about listening, kindness, touching the lives of others, not having the word “can’t” in her vocabulary, etc.)

We honor Wendy and multiply her life exponentially by continuing to make a difference.  In the words of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Principles of the LAW (Life After Wendy)

1. Become a better listener.  (See what Wendy had to say about listening at this commencement address at CSUB, when she got the attention of the graduates talking about fulfilling her desire to make love on all seven continents.)

2. Perform random and not-so-random acts of kindness.  These can be small.  (For ideas, and to see what some high school students did for Wendy Wayne Pay it Forward Day, go here.)

3,  Give to receive.  (Watch this short slide show on Wendy’s life and you will see some of the many ways she contributed all over the world to make the world a better place.  We too can do our part, right here at home.)

4. Nurture our heritage, whatever it may be, and continue to make the world a better place.

5. Never meet a stranger.

6. Extend yourself to all you meet and ensure that doors of opportunity open.

7. Have a home that is always open for gatherings and the sharing of wisdom.

8. Erase the word “no” from your vocabulary because you see only possibilities, never obstacles.

To see that Wendy indeed never met a stranger, watch this short slide show from her Celebration of Life at the Fox Theater, where all 1,500 seats were filled.

The last visit I had with Wendy was a couple of days before she died and we knew it was our last.  As I mentioned earlier, she had visited all seven continents, and she had called her illness and a stem cell transplant her visit to the eighth continent.  I told her that this next adventure into the unknown would be her journey to the ninth continent and she liked that idea.  I did a collage afterwards I called Journey to the Ninth Continent and I think that’s going to be the title of a show I have opening in September at The Foundry.

Wendy, I hope your journey was smooth and also exciting.  Remember our last conversation when I said I might ask you for a sign now and then?  I think I may ask for one soon just to know you got to the ninth continent safely and to find out if you have everything organized yet.  I’m sure there are no strangers.  I send my love.

Journey to the Ninth Continent

Our Amazing Adventure in Washington D.C. Part Three: The Berlin Wall and The Newseum

2012
02.25

The Berlin Wall

There are several threads to this part of the adventure, and again one of them weaves my father Ed Reep’s art into the story.  We’ve been to Washington many times and we went for a specific purpose this time, which I haven’t even blogged about yet.  The one sight we hadn’t seen and wanted to see was the Newseum.  First, though, we saw my father’s World War II work, produced when he was a soldier and war artist with the 5th Army in Italy, at the Army Art Archives. And we also saw this.

In the Army Art Archives

That’s my husband and me standing in front of two large paintings of the Berlin Wall.  Sometime in the 1970s I think, the Army recommissioned my father as a brigadier general and sent him to Germay to paint his impressions of the Wall.  The paintings are stunning.

 

There were also a number of drawings.  So that was something we didn’t expect to see.

We made it over to the Newseum, which is spectacular.

The Newseum

 

And were unexpectedly greeted by the…

 

Eight sections of the wall were on display as well as a large guard tower.  It was surreal to imagine a city cut in half and living in the shadow of a wall.

So far, there seemed to be a lot of synchronicity in this visit.

If anyone has seen the movie Goodbye Lenin, the next photo will elicit a chuckle.  This real-life scene figured in a funny yet poignant scene in the movie.

So we got a double dose of the Berlin Wall – the real thing and the Wall as recorded by my father while visiting the real thing.  But on to the Newseum.

The purpose of the Newseum is to tell the story of news and how it has been reported since the printed word was first able to be spread.  Starting with the first papers up through modern times an impressive array of front pages has been assembled.  I found these interesting.

Guy Fawkes caught my eye because there were people at Occupy Wall Street in masks I didn’t recognize and I believe they were from Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot.

The lighting was very dim in this particular exhibit to preserve the media.

The exterior of the museum and again on the 6th floor is the Front Pages Gallery.  Every morning before the museum opens, the front page of a newspaper from every one of the 50 states is printed and put on display.

It’s pretty awesome.  There are interactive displays where you can find the front page from any paper in the nation so I found our Bakersfield Californian and one from Wyoming where one of our daughters lives.

If editors make good choices, headlines and photos can tell us much about the tenor of the times.  I think The Bakersfield Californian made a particularly good choice the day we were there.  I was not a particular fan of President Bush, but I would have never shaken my finger at him and given him a scolding.  What bad form!  Yet Obama seems to be responding with concern and dignity.

All kinds of things were tucked into the Newseum as they traced news from the beginning through the digital age.  Tim Russert’s office was recreated – or rather moved just as it was when he died – over here.  There was an FBI and the News exhibit and for some reason the Unibomber’s cabin was there as well as a mock-up of the shoe bomber’s shoes – which were quite complex!  And the Greensboro lunch counter was here – one of the places the civil rights movement began with sit-ins.

By then, television news was starting to influence events unlike in any other time in history and nothing would be the same.

The Newseum also has an exciting array of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, an excellent First Amendment exhibit, and an interactive ethics center.  There’s an interactive newsroom – so so much.  It took us an entire day and part of another and we still weren’t done.  I haven’t mentioned nearly everything there is to see.

One unfortunate feature that they are particularly proud of is a 4 D movie that everyone is strongly encouraged to see.  Much is made about “be careful if you’re pregnant or have back problems,” etc. so we were ready for some excitement.  The seat lurched a few times.  Well, lurched is too strong a word.  It was lame.  That’s the only thing I can say.  Anti-climactic.  The movie itself started off strong and then kind of stopped.  So spend your Newseum time on anything but the 4D movie!

So far, this trip had exhibited unexpected synchronicity topped off by the Berlin Wall, and we hadn’t even reached the event that brought us to Washington in the first place.  That’s next.

 

 

A Discovery of World War II Photographs of the Original Piazza Nettuno Shrine

2012
02.21

Recently I blogged about a painting of my father’s titled The Shrine.  If you haven’t read that post you might want to because this part of the story is pretty incredible, at least to me.  My father Edward Reep was a war artist in Italy in WWII and unbeknownst to us until just recently he had roll and rolls of film stashed in his studio in a cigar box.  I only found out by chance.  I found a book of contact prints on a shelf and was thrilled to find those – and even then he didn’t think to say he had the actual  film!  He’s almost 94 but I don’t think that’s it – he just doesn’t see this stuff as important.  I, however, am extremely interested in the history, not just because he’s Dad.

Anyhow, in the previous post I talked about a visit my husband and I made to Washington D.C. and our meeting with a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.  We feel The Shrine should be on permanent exhibit (the painting is owned by The Smithsonian) and the blog post details the history of the painting itself.  So now we have these negatives and I am getting them digitized.  I’m kind of wearing myself thin trying to do all kinds of things at once but I feel time pressure – although Dad is in good health, he’s almost 94, and when he is gone, the history is gone with him.  So I want the photos so he can explain them.

The first 12 rolls are back and here are three that were amongst them.

This is the brick wall in Bologna with fresh blood where the shrine sprung up.  Dad was there watching the whole thing happen.

The photos are amazing.  I hate to keep using that word but it keeps springing to mind.

I was so excited to see these!  I had no idea they existed and they complete the history I was able to piece together in my previous post.

I’ll finish with the image of the painting although it’s in the previous post.  And I have some good news from museum director Elizabeth Broun who thinks  she may be able to find a place for the painting to be on permanent display in the Luce Foundation Center for American Art on the third floor of the museum. I hope for some follow-up news on that soon.

Amazing Adventures in Washington D.C. Part Two: The Shrine

2012
02.13

Our recent trip to Washington D.C was packed with special  moments.  In my last post I wrote about seeing my father’s World War Two art at the Army Art Archives.  We were also able to see some of his art at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

My father’s (Edward Reep’s) painting The Shrine is a significant work of art historically, artistically, and emotionally.  It’s painted brilliantly and my father considers it one of the two best works of art he’s ever done.  He painted it on his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 based on photos he took during World War II in Bologna, Italy.

About the situation, my dad has this to say in his book A Combat Artist in World War II:

In the town square of Bologna, where the city jail is located,  a collaborator had just been slain beneath the iron-barred windows of the jail, his fresh blood still visible on the brick wall below. Within minutes an Italian flag was hung on the wall, above and to the left of the blood-stain, the tricolored red, white and green presenting a startling panache of color against the ancient, dull brown bricks.  The House of Savoy emblem had been ripped away from the white central panel of the flag; pinned in its place was a stiff black ribbon of mourning.  This became a dual gesture: it signified the end of the monarchy and Fascism, and it became a memorial to those who had given their lives in the long struggle for liberation.  A derelict green table was then thrust against the bedecked wall, and placed upon it were little mementos, mostly photographs and flowers commemorating the loved ones who had perished; more photos were pinned to the flag.  The images of those who had seen service in the Italian army were adorned with delicate multicolored ribbons of red, green and white.  Lastly, an ornate filigree cross of black wrought metal was placed toward the front of the table to become the crowning touch in completing the impromptu shrine.  Today, in Bologna, a permanent shrine stands on that sacred ground.

My dad’s notes on the execution of the painting from his book are as follows:

The Shrine was executed after the war from notes and sketches during the hectic moments when we captured Bologna.  The hastily erected shrine depicted is now a permanent and more elaborate national monument in that city.  The painting relies heavily upon the contrast of transparent color glazes against impasto (thick) paint.  After initially priming the canvas, I covered it with a green ground that would peer through the multitude of brownish-red bricks.  Painting on the field of battle had to be quick and spontaneous; it was rarely studied.  Equipment was always portable and never comfortably complete.  In my postwar studio I was able to exercise care and patience, select the appropriate medium, and – of greater importance – reflect deeply upon significant issues.

This historical explanation and photo of the shrine today comes, with permission, from  Scott D. Haddow 0n flickr,

photo

Il Sacrario dei partigiani in Piazza Nettuno, Bologna

Memorial to the partisans of WWII (1943-1945).

Bologna was one of the Italian cities most affected by the war, both for its importance in the communication/transportation system, and for its location in the rear of the Gothic Line. Between September 1943 and April 1945 the city was occupied by the Nazis. The people suffered from cold and hunger, Allied bombings and Nazi reprisals such as that of Monte Sole. Throughout this period, the courageous action of groups of anti-fascist partisans kept the people’s hopes alive.

A high toll was paid by the Bolognese: the number of civilian deaths under the bombing was 2481, while 2064 partisans were killed. On the morning of April 21 1945 Bologna was free.

Women’s groups began to lay flowers and put up pictures of their loved ones in Piazza Nettuno, on the wall where many partisans had been shot .

Thus was born the shrine of the partisans.

(translated from Italian: www.certosadibologna.it/museo_virtuale/sacrario_nettuno.html)

From another source, here is another image of the shrine today.

I am currently speaking with the head curator of the Smithsonian because I feel my father’s painting should be on permanent display somewhere in the museum system.  My father has a couple of other works at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art that were donated by the Ford Motor Company and while they are excellent watercolors, I don’t believe they have either the artistic or historical significance to merit permanent display.  The Shrine, however, does, and I hope something can be worked out.

If anyone wishes to lend their voice to this endeavor, I contacted the director Elizabeth Broun at BrounE@si.edu and she was very interested in hearing more about the history of the painting and the historical significance of the shrine.  I don’t believe she needs “cheerleading” kinds of contact, but more of historically directed opinions or artistic statements if anyone has information I don’t.  For example, what Scott D. Haddow had to say is very interesting because this was difficult to google.

Above, my husband and I look at my father’s watercolors in the Smithsonian archives.

Watercolor donated to the Smithsonian by Ford Motor Company.

All in all, it was rather amazing to have been one day at the Army Art Archives examining my father’s art and the next doing the same at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.  This trip was beginning to feel a little bit surreal, but no one was complaining!

To come: more amazing connections and coincidences with the Berlin Wall.

 

 

Amazing adventures in Washington DC Part One: We visit the Army Art Archives and see my father’s WWII art

2012
02.10

Anzio Beach by Edward Reep

Above:  bombs fall in the harbor at Anzio Beach in World War II as Edward Reep paints on the spot.

To start at the very beginning we’d have to go all the way back to WWII.  My dad enlisted in the army as so many people did in what is now called the Greatest Generation.  My father, however, was an artist, and while he was trained as a soldier and an officer at Camp Roberts and Fort Ord in California, he was asked to be a war artist.  This meant that he fought the war with paintbrushes as well as guns.

In a previous post, where Ben Clarke recalls how my dad saved his father’s life by rushing onto the battlefield and rescuing him, you can read what it meant to be a war artist.  That’s not what this is about.

This is about the amazing chance my husband and I had to see all the paintings and drawings my dad did in Italy, which are now property of the Department of the Army.  The story gets a little convoluted here and I’ll spare everyone the details. Suffice it to say that through a series of coincidences, odd circumstances and luck, we made contact with the Army art archivist in Washington D.C. and were able to see her during our visit.

We rented a car and drove to Fort Belvoir and again realized how grateful we are to live in Bakersfield, California where the air is bad, the literacy rate is low, but the traffic is light and it’s easy to get around.  But it was nostalgic to visit Fort Belvoir because my parents were married there in Chapel #6 in 1941, and in the ’70s we drove to Fort Belvoir and took our picture outside of Chapel #6.  Today, the fort has been restructured and that little chapel is no more.

So.  The art.  It was a thrill to be in a state-of-the-art building full of art that was not just art but primary source historical material.  It is truly priceless.  The army cares for its art meticulously and with reverence and respect which was comforting and reassuring. The real thrill was seeing my dad’s work.

This work has been reproduced in books and lent to various galleries across the country for shows but for the first time we saw it all and it is spectacular.  In the same way that a black and white photo is oddly more realistic than a color photo, even though the world is in color, a painting of the war can seem more realistic and emotional than a photograph.  Seeing the body of work all together was emotional, and knowing it was my father’s work elicits feelings I can hardly articulate.

My pictures are distorted because the paintings were flat, but I’ll show some anyway and explain.

The Bath

This painting is very well known and popular.  This particular soldier wanted a hot bath and had gasoline dripping over an open flame to heat water.  My dad was afraid it would blow up any instant!  The painting was shipped home during the war, shown in New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt came to the exhibit. She paused in front of this painting, which was captured by the Movietone News.  When my dad’s parents went to the movies in Los Angeles, they were surprised and so proud to see Mrs. Roosevelt, whom they greatly admired, looking at their son Edward Reep’s painting!

These are all from the Italian front.  The soldier bathing is in Anzio.  These soldiers are on a normal patrol, if anything can be called normal in war, and the army archivist mentioned how interesting she found it that artists could capture the natural beauty that existed among the horror of war.

The Italian winters were harsh.  Tents and guns were painted white to blend in with snow.  Supplies had been stashed and buried with cans put on sticks so they could be located, but the cans were painted red.  My father feels this is one of his finest war paintings.

This painting is of the front line.  Dad said that since seeing the movie All Quiet on the Western Front, he had wondered what the front line was like. He described the final scene where the character Paul is back on the front lines and sees a butterfly, a thing of beauty.  He stands to see it better but is too exposed and is shot and killed.  And here it was.  The Front – a line with white tape stretched across it, mines on the other side. Allies on one side, Germans on the other.

This very powerful drawing is of a mule train in the Apennines in Northern Italy.  It was cold and wet; the mud was 14 inches deep and very sticky.  Dad fell face down and almost could not free himself.  He thought he was going to die there.  Finally, he managed to free one nostril enough to breathe and then was able to calm down and work himself out.  He had to draw and not paint because the watercolors would freeze overnight and melt in the mornings.

The leading art critic of the time called Dad one of the six best pen and ink artists of his day.

These are only a few of a large and remarkable body of work.  My husband and I consider this visit a highlight of our adult life and a privilege.  How lucky we are – how lucky I am – to have this history as part of our lives.

You can learn more about the war art program and combat artists, or about my dad Edward Reep’s art and experiences in the war  here- A Combat Artist in WWII

or here – They Drew Fire

 

 

Why I Went to Occupy Wall Street and What I Saw

2012
01.04

The beginning for me was back in the late 60s when I was a student at UC Berkeley.  The array of opportunities before me was staggering, all of them out of the classroom.  I could become an activist, a protester, an anti-war demonstrator; I could become proactive in the political system and work towards change in society.  I could support the Black Panthers.  My husband and I lived a block from People’s Park. So what did I do with this panoply of possibility?  Not a thing.

I was young, naive and I didn’t understand what was happening.  I missed the civil rights movement because I was in high school in California and we couldn’t imagine what it was like in the south.  I hadn’t followed the Vietnam War, so I sat that out. By the time I realized it was something to pay attention to, I was too far behind.  I was newly married and all I really wanted to do was have a baby.

As the years progressed I understood, so when protesters took a stand at  Zuccotti Park in New York and became known as Occupy Wall Street, I paid attention.  I wanted to see for myself.  I knew I couldn’t spend more than a couple of days, but they were important days for a couple of reasons.  One, I felt history was unfolding that could turn into one of the seminal moments of our century, like Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, or all the events of 1968 were in the last century. I was not going to miss this one.

Second, I wanted to see for myself so when I read the press accounts, listened to the commentators and reporters, and read what citizens had to say, I would know how to judge it for myself.  Recently TIME Magazine named the protester as their Person of the Year, and I feel better for having caught on to this movement early.

I made a sign that I rolled up in a tube and took with me.  It said “Remember the Constitution? We the People, in order to form a more perfect union…promote the general welfare…”  And then, “WE are the people, not Wall Street and not corporations.”  And I got flak.

People stopped.  Why do you hate us? They asked.  Why do you hate everyone who works on Wall Street? Why do you hate corporations? I tried to explain that Wall Street, the 99%, the 1%, the word “corporations” are symbols because my sign could not say “We are the people, not Wall Street except of course for people who are employees or middle managers and not robbing us all by creating things like hedge funds that produce nothing of value, just money for the already wealthy and I don’t hate corporations but am bothered by the Supreme Court ruling that says corporations in essence are people too, and have rights under the first amendment and can spend as much money as they want on campaigns, so now corporations will be able to buy power and elections more than ever as if they haven’t already held power through their lobbyists,” and so on.

I can’t say all that on a sign.  So the words are symbolic.

Then people would dismissively say, well, what are the demands?  What do you want?  And I would answer that I didn’t think it was important in the beginning to have well articulated goals because what was happening was a groundswell of discontent with the status quo.  THAT was the message.  There was massive discontent throughout society all over the world.  Here, we were upset that corporations were raking in record profits while the rest of us were hurting; executives were making billions of dollars while their companies paid well less than the 35% corporate tax rate; big banks got bailouts and quickly recouped their losses, paid the government back, and made more money than ever.  But people were still losing homes. People were losing homes while big banks subverted plans to help stave off foreclosure.

The concept of general welfare was lost. Lobbyists were buying Congress and Congress was selling, operating on some fuzzy principle that made self-preservation and enrichment more important than governing.  Our elected representatives were not for The People, they were for themselves.

For years, while teaching a leadership class in eighth grade, I told my students that the gap was widening between the poor and the upper class, and the middle class was in danger of disappearing.  I told them that that was a factor in fomenting revolution.   Revolution doesn’t mean guns and fighting all the time; some of the most successful revolutions are non-violent. Revolution means taking a stand and sticking to your ground until real change occurs.  I was told I was exaggerating and nothing like that would happen.  But here we are all around the world – revolting.

So the groundswell of discontent was enough for now.  Let the people regain some power.  It doesn’t matter that occupiers have different interests – political, financial, environmental, and so on – it’s the sense of fairness in all endeavors that is paramount, having a voice that is listened to and acted upon.

Then people referenced Democrats and anarchists and the homeless and the kitchen sink.  No, I said, this isn’t about Democrats and Republicans.  The Tea Party movement arose from a groundswell of discontent also.  Take the most extreme Democrats and Republicans and they will intersect on the other side of the circle.  We are not all that different.  Maybe Republicans gravitate to the Tea Party and Democrats to Occupy Wall Street, but it’s all a reaction to discontent with the status quo.  The Republican primary is also indicative of a groundswell of discontent.  It’s, as my friend Pat Johnson said, like the game Whack a Mole – one candidate is smacked down while another bounces up.  People can’t decide who they want because no one is measuring up.  Discontent.

So, I went to New York and spent some days at Zuccotti Park and this is what I saw.

I saw people waking up in the morning.

I saw people at the encampment being fed.  No one was turned away.

Although organization was loose, I saw that everyone agreed on the need to adhere to some basic rules and standards.

Lots had been said about how dirty everything was, but it didn’t look that way to me.  There was a concerted effort to keep litter at bay and keep the park cleaned up.

People were prepared for basic first-aid needs.

A big library sprung up and I must admit I wasn’t sure why; but at least reading and learning was felt to be important and that is something in short supply in today’s society, where ignorance is often celebrated.

There was inclusion, not exclusion.

There were workshops and meetings and assemblies so people could understand and discuss what was happening.  Much fun has been made of the general assemblies and how impossible it is to get consensus, on why a leader is needed, but our country wasn’t founded with the snap of a finger.  It took a long time to sort out leadership and issues and words.  It’s not easy work.  It will take time and hard work and courage on the part of whichever members of Congress can summon some to get this worked out too.

AND there were the people.

There were Asians and blacks and Hispanics and whites.

There were students.

There were veterans.

Sirius radio was broadcasting.

There were drummers and I confess to not quite understanding why drumming was necessary and it did become annoying – but it also added to the urgency and the atmosphere.

There were LOTS of people – full-time occupiers and working folk who came on the weekends to lend support.

There were retired people too – because I was one of them.

There were tourists going by in buses.  Zuccotti Park, previously unknown by everyone including most New Yorkers, was now a destination.

There were people giving haircuts and giving out clothing for those who needed a change.  Other people helped with laundry.  It was an instant community.

There was a makeshift altar for those of all faiths to have a moment of peace.

There were families.  Young and old.

Pretty much normal people.  Not a bunch of weirdos.  Of course there was the occasional weirdo or extremist, but that happens anywhere you go.  That was the exception.

There were also passers-by who were not just gawkers, but talked to people to understand and learn.

There were supplies and places to make posters.

There were union members.

There were incongruities, like this fellow whose guitar case and songs spoke of old-fashioned protest while the person he was with filmed with an iPad.

There was organized entertainment.

And there was humor.

And of course, there was law enforcement.  From what I observed, much of the cost incurred by law enforcement agencies was self-inflicted.  This was clearly a peaceful, non-violent occupation by intent and self-policing.  Law enforcement was way out of proportion to what was happening.

 

I was there three days in late October.  I was lucky I was able to go and could afford it.  I didn’t make a big difference; me being there was just one more body in the crowd those three days, one more protester holding a sign.  But I did something at least.  I tried to understand if nothing else.  I took a stand.  I’m proud of being there and holding a sign, which is way out of my comfort zone.

I wish everyone would take notice and think about it, not jump to conclusions and be judgmental.  We have a rare opportunity right now to take back the country.  And I think that’s exactly what this is about – taking back the country from the lobbyists, the big corporations whose tax breaks never gave anyone a job (in my opinion), and our own congress who for the most part are not working for the interests of the people.  They’re working for the interests of the rich, and they get rich while doing it.