Thursday, April 22, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

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Yesterday turned out to be a tremendously enlightening, laughter-filled, gratifying day. Everything that happened was because we were open to making last-minute, impulsive decisions that changed our plans.

The adventure started with a mid-afternoon phone call on Tuesday from Mom’s hospice volunteer and now our family friend, Marianne, who lives in a Quaker retirement community nearby. Her daughter-in-law, Maira Kalman, was coming into Philadelphia from New York to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania at 6:30 p.m. yesterday. Marianne was scheduled to take a 10:00 a.m. bus trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum with members of her community to view the Picasso exhibit that is featured at the museum right now. The bus was returning at 2:30 p.m., so Marianne was planning to take a cab over to the Institute, meet a gentleman friend, Cliff, at 5:00 p.m. and the problem was how the two of them would get back home when the program was over. Maira was expected at a reception in her honor after the program, and was staying over downtown so that she could attend a morning meeting before catching a train back to New York. I checked with Saul and found that he could meet us at the art museum by 4:00 p.m. after school, and was very happy to chauffeur us, after we viewed the Picasso exhibit, to attend Maira’s presentation and bring us all back home.

The past weekend, and the earlier part of this week was spent attending to the spring details of getting the house ready to go up for sale again. Deep cleaning, shopping for flowers and refilling the flower pots, overseeing landscaping work, having the ice-maker in the freezer fixed, readying the garden for planting, and de-cluttering in general have filled the last few days. On Saturday, we attended services, had a light lunch at the synagogue, and stayed for a program by Kurt Herman, who was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He entered the U.S. thanks to the efforts of Brit Shalom and a far-sighted and philanthropic couple, by way of a Kindertransport in May, 1939, along with 49 other children to escape persecution by the Nazis. He grew up in Allentown, graduating from Allentown High School in 1947, and attended Muhlenberg College for two years, then transferred to Penn State, where he graduated in 1951, then served in the U.S. military from 1951 to 1954. He has been interviewed by Steven Spielberg’s SHOA Foundation, detailing his experience to be used as an educational tool in schools. His interesting tale of how he and many of his family members survived was an amazing amalgam of chutzpah, luck, and empathy. Afterward, our friend Larry accompanied us to visit Saul’s mom at the Alzheimer’s unit of Lion’s Gate in New Jersey. There was a marked difference in her mental state this time, as she just barely appeared to recognize us, did not know our names, and Saul felt he had to clue her in that he was her son. She still professes to be very happy with her circumstances. Her hair was cut neatly, dyed her preferred shade of blonde, and her nails had been polished red and manicured nicely, but she looked as though she had not washed her hair in quite some time, and her behavior and conversation were a bit erratic. Saul showed her movies of Yona on his iPhone which delighted her, but twice, she questioned Saul about the baby’s identity.

Late that evening, we picked up Faith and had dinner at a new pizzeria in Dresher, Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza, where we polished off a large traditional pie with caramelized onions. Faith knew Saul would love the “well done” somewhat blackened crispy thin crust. After that, we stopped at a Cumberland Farms to pick up Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, whipped cream, and hot fudge, which we ate with relish at Faith’s table while Saul checked out her new laptop, and while we had long, thought-provoking conversations into the late hours. All around us were Faith’s massive collection of whimsical dolls which did a great job of providing a cheery atmosphere, despite the downers earlier in the day.

All these concerns and responsibilities, coupled with the fact that Ari is moving on Monday to a corporate apartment because he has not yet found a home, had conspired to make me fretful and uneasy. On Monday, in an attempt to dispel some of the gloom, I arranged for us to meet Ken and Randi to celebrate Ken’s birthday, which had been on Sunday. We treated them to a delightful and economical dinner at P.F. Chang’s, which has drinks and appetizers half price from 5 to 6 p.m. every day at the bar during “happy hour.” I had a huge blue-green-colored cocktail in a fancy glass, made with coconut liqueur and blue CuraƧao, among other things. As they began to bring us our small plates of appetizers, we ran out of room on the table to put them down and had to keep rearranging the plates, like a puzzle, to make everything fit. We even shared an extremely rich chocolate dessert that Ken chose. We had a blast, but during the night, my thoughts (and perhaps even the food) came back to haunt me as I contemplated the events of the Holocaust, the uncertainty of our futures, and death itself. Which all brings me back to Marianne’s phone call on Tuesday afternoon.

So early Wednesday morning, I was up, preparing to escape for the day (from at least the housekeeping part of my responsibilities) by immersing myself in the world of art. During the bus ride, and over lunch, Marianne fascinated me with stories from her long and most unusual life. Her eclectic and ecumenical experiences during the Holocaust were absorbing and I greatly admire her perspective on life which has been colored and enriched by these experiences in a good way. She is an attentive listener as well, perhaps a skill that she picked up in her years as a hospice volunteer. I spent several hours at the museum, almost the entire time, viewing the Picasso exhibit, which was set up with major works by other cubist artists as well, to give the viewer a sense of the development, history, and context of the whole cubist movement. Thinking about the passion of these artists, their willingness to devote their lives in pursuit of an elusive standard of honest expression, breaking new ground against the accepted art standards of their time, I was struck by how my own petty common concerns can sap my creative energy, indeed, sometimes all my energy.

When Saul met us, we drove over to the Institute of Contemporary Art and found a parking meter alongside the restaurant, Pod, just down the street from the Institute. We greeted Maira, who was going over the media aspect of her presentation with some of the people from the Institute. Marianne’s friend, Cliff, joined us at precisely 5:00 p.m. as expected. Marianne, Cliff, Saul and I set out to have dinner at La Famiglia, just a few miles away, but after less than a mile in rush hour traffic, we realized we would not make it back in time if we continued. We turned around and returned to another meter, and had a lovely, light and quick dinner at Pod (compliments of Cliff and Marianne), a unique restaurant which I believe was designed to mirror the contemporary style and ambiance of the Institute’s exhibits. Sushi and Asian cuisine are the largest component of the menu, and besides the white tables with their modern white chairs lit by luminescent, color-changing florescent lamps, there is a sushi bar with a narrow, industrial-style, stainless steel, conveyor belt from which to choose small dishes of sushi. Marianne and Cliff told us that the restaurant was a refreshing experience for them, quite different from their usual experience at the albeit lovely restaurant at their retirement home.

A light drizzle rained down on us as we strolled up the street to the Institute for Maira’s presentation. The room was packed with people. All the chairs were taken, except for two rows in the front reserved for VIPs of the Institute. People were lined up and standing along the walls. We followed Marianne to the reserved seating and sat down to the glares of both the standing people and the Art Institute people, who knew we were not of their ranks and who began to protest. A moment later, when Maira came in, she immediately noticed us, introduced us as family, and insisted that we move to the first row. Then, she invited those standing to come forward to sit on the floor in front, if they desired, as no more chairs were available. She began by posing the question, “If you had to choose between thinking and feeling, which would you choose?” Having just visited Saul’s mom in the Alzheimer’s unit, I knew immediately what my answer would be and was shocked when Maira said that, for her, there would be no question that it would be feeling. Her stream-of-consciousness monologue was flecked with humor and had no traces of the pretension that is sometimes prevalent in the art world. She joked about how thinking too much gets her into trouble all the time, and that her inspiration comes from going with her feelings, which can be very random and unpredictable. It struck me like a bolt of lightening that my fretful thoughts and worries are counterproductive, as life is as unpredictable as the subjects of Maira’s art. The thoughts and opinions of others (over which I agonize way too much) should be irrelevant to an artist truly following her muse. I believe Maira is much admired for her ability to freely explore and honestly represent that which interests her, and she does it in a way that is unique to her, and yet universal in its appeal. She does all this with warmth and unaffected humor.

During her presentation, Maira put up a slide of her painting of Marianne and her twin sister, done from an old photo, as girls wearing what Marianne told me later were what she considered to be the ugliest sister dresses they had ever owned—yellow dresses with a black stripe. Marianne was flattered and became an instant celebrity to the crowd when Maira introduced her as one of the subjects of the painting.

After the presentation, the crowd lined up at a long table where Maira signed books, and a cake in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was sliced and consumed. Her original speaking engagement on his birthday had to be rescheduled because of the snow, and those in charge, with tongue in cheek, felt it would be fitting to remember him at this late date anyway. For sale at the Institute during the signing, were tote bags and tee shirts printed with the historic poster of the motto that titles this post. Having heard Maira speak, and despite the double entendre of a tote bag having the motto to “carry on,” I plan to strive to adopt this motto into my life as much as I can muster. Sixty years of perfectionism and agonizing over every little thing will not go away easily.

Our evening ended in a breathtaking townhouse on Delancey Place in the home of two patrons of the Institute who provided a catered repast for the selected guests, us among them, as Maira had invited us to join them. Marianne was extremely moved when one of the guests lifted his sleeve to reveal that he has been wearing the quirky wristwatch that her deceased son, Tibor, Maira’s husband, designed and produced many years ago.

We drove Marianne and Cliff home, all of us thrilled with our serendipitous day. I feel a lot happier now, inspired by Maira, not to think (and agonize) so much over how my life will play out. I will try to respond to life as it unfolds with the motto, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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