April 15, 2014

“My Father Who Art in Heaven”

 

In late December 1960 standing there alone, terrified, being forced to speak a language I did not understand, (although I thought the characters beautiful and interesting) I think I finally understood that at a profound level, I was totally lost.

I already had a glimpse of this over the past months, as I was forced on a weekly basis to attend Hebrew classes in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah into manhood.

I had week after week recited passages that I did not understand or believe. I had learned to speak the language, but any Holy Spirit had eluded me. The walls around me seemed so baron and empty.

I had vigorously protested this whole exercise with my father, but he in deference to his parents, and with the opportunity to have a large lavish party, dismissed my protest.

Although we were only nominally reform Jewish, life in the late fifties and early sixties was segregated not only for blacks, but for the most part for Jews as well.

There were non-Jewish sports clubs, country clubs, neighborhoods, etc. and the Patrician WASP culture of America, although much kinder and accepting of Jews than Blacks, in their hearts felt a Jew to be ugly, crass, and second rate. Jews were very smart and cunning, but for the most part to be avoided as good close friends. They were a different breed with far less style and breeding than their Christian counterparts in the elite East Coast corridor of America.

My mother in her never-ending attempt to expunge Judaism from our home, mimicked the WASP culture to a tee. She could have put Ralph (Lipschitz) Lauren to shame.

We became a family that socialized with likeminded Jews but we all looked like we didn’t quite belong.  My sister and I went off to boarding schools and we too appropriated the style and demeanor of our Christian associates. I learned how to out-prep the preppies in my dress and learned how to emulate the WASP culture and continually put myself up for comparison. I didn’t have the blond hair or the blue eyes. I didn’t excel at sports. I was second rate, but I still wanted to be seen past my Jewishness, past my curly hair, my nose, past this exterior, I was never apart of, and be accepted by those of style, and provenance for being acceptable. Although I wasn’t born into it, it was the only culture that felt right, and I wanted to be a part of it.

In later years I went to Chapel at boarding school daily, recited The Lords Prayer, sung the carols, gave penitence, but still found myself both culturally and spiritually on the outside looking in. I yearned for assimilation, something to be apart of, something I could believe in, and in the end although I came very close to membership I never felt I truly belonged.

So on this Easter Holiday, this Moveable Feast that intwines the Jewish holiday of Passover with the Christian holiday of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of the Son of God I find myself as always wondering what if ? 

What if Jesus was the actual Son of God. How different our lives would be. This Good News would allow us to know our purpose, our reason for existence, and how to live our lives. We would be allowed to forgive our trespasses, and find peace and grace on this earth. His Kingdom Would Be Done.

But on that late December day on the eve of Jesus’s birthday, as I looked out over the congregation in search of my Father, although I think I may have seen him, I never was able to reach out my arms, my soul, nor lift my gaze, and find peace. I remained, as always, on the outside feeling very much alone.

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April 2, 2014

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

 

I live in a very small, somewhat Bohemian community on the Hudson River about ten miles from Manhattan. We are so close to the city that if this was LA I would be living downtown amidst cement and shopping centers, but luckily it’s not and the metropolis of New York ends at the George Washington Bridge separating New York from the foreign land of New Jersey.

It is an eighteenth century community nestled into the Palisades (cliffs that lie near the river), with a great deal of history.

Although closely attached to the extremities of New York City, it is far far away with few unpaved roads, and a mixture of homes from the eighteenth century to the ultra modern. No two homes are the same in appearance or even scale. There are large estates, and tiny cottages all intwined into the community called Sneden’s Landing.

It dates back to the American Revolution, where George Washington had his headquarters a few miles from the landing and it became one of the main traverses of Washington as he traveled with his troops to cross the Hudson River. In fact the main lane is called Washington Spring Road as legend has it that he often stopped at the small spring to get water for himself and his troops.

At the foot of the Palisades lies the original Molly Sneden house, which used to provide Ferry Service across the great expanse of the Hudson River to the alternate side of Dobbs Ferry. Legend states that there existed a great love affair between Molly Sneden and William Dobbs.

For a time in the 19th Century at the foot of the landing Hudson River sloops were built at the edge of the river, and grand Hudson River estates were built to escape the noise and heat of Manhattan in the Summer.

Beautiful gardens were built and some truly majestic trees were planted that still existed until recently (See Above Picture), and like the homes of England each house in the landing has a name. There is the Ding Dong House, The Laundry, Cliffside, The Captains Lair, etc. and often houses have passed on to descendants or people move from one house to another as their lives change.

Throughout its history Sneden’s Landing has always been home to the eccentric and the artistic. In the twenties it was filled with writers and publishers, and today it is filled with movie stars, dancers, directors, theatrical lawyers, and some businessmen, and me.

Sneden’s prides itself in its slightly organic quality. Things ramble a bit, houses decay, stone walls are left to their own devices, and things in general are left to fall where they may. This is part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic, that was original to the original landing but today is something only money can buy.

Although my house is very old (1840) it is very meticulously restored and it is a place of order and solace. When you turn down Washington Spring Road into Sneden’s Landing that is far away from traditional American suburbia. It is a small remnant of nonchalant country life, but when you finally enter the large black gates, the entrance to our home you have left the laissez-faire behind. My hedges are neatly clipped. My lawn, which at the moment is being vacuumed to pick up winter’s debris, is usually carefully clipped and manicured. My driveway is raked like a Japanese monastery, and I agonize over the quality of paint (buying fifty gallons of the last oil based paint available). Unlike the slow decay around me I am continually in odds with mother nature, defying its continual effort to dull my paint, give my grass heartache, and my stones a truly unkempt look. I never win this battle but as long as I’m breathing I will try to stand strong.

Like my photographs all is in its place, serene, peaceful, and balanced. I would think that when you enter the property you have entered the world of Rodney Smith.

I hope it is as inviting as what lies before, for like the original Sneden’s Landing, I would hope that I am one of a kind.

 

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March 19, 2014

Not Giving and You Shall Receive

 

In the early nineties when there were large numbers of Masters of the Universe filling Wall Street, and power and money oozed through every poor of the cavernous streets, I found myself one morning in the midst of all this money and power waiting to meet one of the large scions of Wall Street to take his portrait.

As usual, his name will be withheld to protect the guilty, but at the time he along with very few others controlled billions if not trillions of dollars that coursed through every exchange throughout the world.

Wall Street was booming. He was booming and it was imperative to quickly get back to making more billions. He had no time for photography, or did he.

At this point, after photographing many of the worlds CEOs and Power Brokers, I had become very adept in getting what I wanted, which was time away from the office. If I could get these men (and at the time it was almost all men) away from their work and their office, they behaved graciously and seemed to enjoy the experience. We would get along very well and some even became my friends.

My secret was my little box. Enclosed were prints of portraits of their contemporaries that I had taken and quite often after a great deal of work and enormous effort I would either get to meet the CEO in his office or on occasion over lunch or dinner and show them the work I had done of their contemporaries. It was implied that they too could look like these other men if only they would give me enough time and the right place. If they accepted this promise like a flash of revelation hostility towards me would mostly dissipate, and the rest of the discussion would be the appropriate location and how much time I needed. The conclusion of lunch or dinner would go something like this. See you in London, or in the Bahamas, or in Aspen, or in Paris etc. If they were going some place I thought interesting I would tag along and they would usually find a day for me.

But here I was waiting in the most mundane boardroom imaginable waiting for our subject. The entourage that surrounded him never let me approach him before the shoot, and it had been determined that I would only be allowed fifteen minutes with the man of the hour.

I had learned over the years that all this play for power and control was simply fear. These men were very public figures and equally as vain as most celebrities. They wanted to look good but only if they could control the situation. They were afraid of something they did not trust or control. If in the end you could earn their trust they were willing to be truly vulnerable and powerful subjects.

So on this early morning in the early nineties, our subject walks into the room and says to all around, “I’m busy, so let’s get this over-with as fast as possible”.

Now, it’s time to provide some background music. Every job is filled with anxiety, some more than others. In this case, the marketing director of the firm was terrified that the CEO would not like the photographer as in years past, and he or she would find herself severely reprimanded for hiring the firm that hired me. The firm that hired me was nervous that if I failed in any way they then they failed too and therefore their job was in jeopardy. So as everyone stands quietly and watches you could almost feel the pores of sweat forming on people’s foreheads until, this ordeal would be concluded, and they could graciously slip away and sigh with relief.

So when our impatient CEO walks in the room and utters his comment the silence was roaring. Everyone stood motionless in fear.

I ask him quickly to stand in one place, to look directly at me, and I take one frame and put my camera down, and announce to him that he is finished and can now go.

He stares at me with shock and amusement and even a little annoyance and asks again if I am serious that this session was truly done.

I tell him “I believe he has a competent picture equal to the effort he has put into the experience, and I realize he is in a great rush (there are millions of dollars at stake) and I am a willing to accommodate his need for speed. If in the future he had more time and was willing, together we could produce something of far more substance, but for now one frame was enough”.

With this comment he laughs, thanks me, and walks out of the room.

Everyone left standing in the room doesn’t know whether to cry or laugh but to avoid this uncomfortable situation everyone quietly dismisses themselves and leaves as quickly as possible. Nobody knows what to say. Has this been a good experience or terrible. They are all praying this one frame was worth its weight in gold.

I too pack up quickly and am just about at the elevator door when our subjects’ secretary comes running over to me and tells me the CEO would love to see me in his office.

I join him in his beautiful mahogany filled office, and he begins to show me pictures of all his houses around the United States.

At first I’m not sure I understand but soon it becomes clear he is asking me to reshoot his picture at one of these locations where he would have more time.

It is never my intent to be arrogant, although I often am, nor to be tough or rude or inconsiderate, but what I will do is fight relentlessly for the picture. The picture is bigger and far stronger than me. It is almost sacred and it is worth fighting for. A portrait requires full participation by all involved to even begin to have the chance to produce something truly special. If one opens up to me I will give my heart and soul to them.

What our subject only offered at first was a handshake but in the end great portraiture requires an intimate embrace.

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March 7, 2014

The Postman Never Rings Twice Part 2


 

As early evening descended on some excruciatingly hot summers day in 1967, Niven and I were walking slowly through acres of walnut trees at his ranch in Hollister, California, when he mentioned casually that these acres of trees almost became a vineyard.

In typical Niven fashion, with a languid meandering drawl, which fit the hot dusty earth of California, he began to unwind a slow and bemused story of an almost wealth that was not to be.

California in the early and mid sixties was just beginning to produce grapes on a large scale for wine. Napa and Sonoma were in their infancy as one of the wine producing capitols and one of the largest producers of wine was Almaden Vineyards.

Almaden was one of the businesses of Louis Benoist of San Francisco, a descendent of French aristocracy, a uniquely extravagant and flamboyant figure of the late fifties and early sixties, he had five houses planted around California, huge yachts and planes, and a lifestyle that fitted a boastful man of means.

One afternoon, some months before our conversation, Niven received a call from a representative of Mr. Benoist, who asked if he may come over that day for a conversation.

It turns out, Mr. Benoist was expanding both his lifestyle and his property and wanted to buy Niven’s few hundred acres of mostly untended apricot and walnut trees and turn them into more land for Almaden to grow grapes.

Although the land looked fallow, dusty, and dry to me, and the ranch an unpretentious single level house that was comfortable but nothing special, it turned out the land was perfect for a premiere vineyard and Louis Benoist wanted it. Niven in his usual fashion negotiated an extravagant and incredibly prosperous deal for himself and with his very best gold pen signed that day a letter of intent to be finalized and notarized at Mr. Benoist extravaganza party at one of his palatial estates in two weeks.

As we reached an end of an allay of walnut trees my heart began to beat faster in expectation. If you think I’m a good story teller you should have heard Niven. Remember he’s a screenwriter novelist and if there ever was one who could spin a yarn it was Britton Niven Busch. Niven told me he was ecstatic at the thought of selling a few hundred acres of dirt. He had negotiated a huge sum and with it he had fantasies of a beautiful townhouse in Pacific Palisades in San Francisco.

Finally the evening arrives and Niven and Cheeta, his fourth and my most favorite wife, go to Mr. Benoist house for one of the most lavish and extravagant parties Niven had ever seen. And Niven, who was a product of Long Island extravaganza, had seen a lot. Remember this man was friends with many of Hollywoods most illustrious luminaries, and I could only imagine what his good times were like.

As we are slowly meandering back towards the ranch Niven tells me that all night Mr. Benoist eludes him. He seems to be continually avoiding any opportunity to sign the papers but finally at the very end of the evening Mr. Benoist tells Niven he’s too busy at the moment but they will get together next week to finalize everything.

I am now more impatient than ever and beg Niven to get on with the story and tell me what happened. He laughs and slowly unveils the remainder and the most important part of the story I’m about to tell you.

Firstly, despite numerous attempts by Niven over the next few weeks, Louis Benoist never signed the papers. Two weeks after this last extravagant and lustful party, Niven reads in the San Francisco Chronicle that Louis Benoist has been arrested by the FBI, and here is where this story like many other stories of the past, the present, and I am sure the future merge into the common denominator of greed.

With an eye for going from rich to even richer Louis Benoist began to expand his empire on credit, buying more businesses and more land, and this is where Niven came in. Louis Benoist was on a tear buying more and more land for his ever-expanding Almaden Vineyards and to raise the capital that all acquisitions need, Louis Benoist put up as collateral all the soybean oil he had stored in his tanks being held at Lawrence Warehousing, which I understand to be many millions of dollars.

He borrowed huge sums of money against this oil to go on his buying spree. The banks, to continually check and confirm their collateral, would send inspectors out to the warehouse on a monthly basis armed with a giant dipstick that they would place into the top of the tanks to make sure their oil was still there. Month after month they would confirm their collateral. It was just on the day that Niven was to get his papers signed, that someone spilled the oil and told the FBI that there was fraudulent playing at Lawrence Warehousing. Oh to imagine what could have been.

So the story goes like this. Over the last number of years Louis Benoist had been sucking dry his soybean oil unbeknownst to the banks. He did this, like all intelligent men of greed, by cheating those who supported him. He had placed a small and narrow tube down the inside of each of his tanks and slowly syphoned out and sold all the oil outside of this small tube. By the time the FBI got to him the tanks were basically empty except for a few hundred gallons that remained inside the tube to satisfy the bankers dipsticks.

So with this discovery the world of Louis Benoist, Almaden Vineyards, Lawrence Warehousing, and a number of other businesses along with the houses, the yachts, the planes, came tumbling down and just a few days after his arrest Almaden was sold in a fire sale to National Distilleries. Along with the sale all the hopes of what might have been for Niven were lost.

Niven the ultimate wheeler-dealer had been double wheeled and double dealed by the infamous Louis Benoist.

 

P.S. It has come to my attention that my story is correct but some of the facts are wrong, well what you would expect from a story that is 47 years old told to me by the greatest storyteller I’d ever met.

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February 19, 2014

The Postman Never Rings Twice Part I

 

This is a story about my first wife’s father Niven Busch, the GRANDfather to my son Jonah. For he was truly grand in every way and like my own father, left his mark imbedded and scattered throughout his seven children and five wives.

He was born of wealthy patrician parents and lived in Centre Island, Long Island, New York. He went to Princeton, worked with his cousin Briton Hadden, the co-founder of Time Life with Henry Luce, at The New Yorker, and ultimately (an this is another story) abandoned the East and all its history to become a screenwriter and novelist in California.

He became quite a legend writing films like Duel in the Sun, and The Postman Never Rings Twice as well as writing many novels set in California such as California Street, The San Franciscans etc.

He was tall and very handsome “looking like a cross between Errol Flynn (a good friend and fellow polo player) and John Huston, and women by the droves were attracted to this handsome, adventurous, smart, cunning man. His life was an enormous adventure, which I became a part of my last two years of high school and remained so for many years.

He often confided in me, and even wrote one book with a little help from my father whom he liked. These two giant egos seemed to mesh perfectly as they had different lives in different places. They related and understood each other from afar.

Niven was tall and very Western and my father was small Jewish and very Eastern yet these two men were both a force to be reckoned with and despite their deaths their legacy has lived on strongly.

Karl Malden once told me his agent told him never to go into a room alone with Niven as he would come out the loser.

Niven married the actress Teresa Wright, my first wife’s mother and his third wife in 1942 and they were divorced in 1952, when Mary-Kelly and her mother moved to New York City, and Niven and Terrence, Mary-Kelly’s brother, stayed in California moving north to Hollister where Niven bought an Apricot and Walnut Ranch and settled in to write novels. After the less than amicable divorce Niven and Teresa barely spoke to each other except to exchange information on the children.

He quickly remarried for his forth time to Carmenceta (Cheetah) and had three other children. Cheetah was one of the most special people, and as time went on became one of my closest friends. I was always Rodney Lewis to her and I will get back to her at a later date but for now this is a story about Niven and I must plow ahead.

As one might expect from these two very beautiful and handsome people, a movie star and a writer, two children were conceived Terrence, who I always thought was going to be the next John Steinbeck, brilliant handsome and my idol as a child. He was four years older than me but yet seemed miles ahead of me and Mary-Kelly my wife whom I met in our high school years. Mary-Kelly was beautiful, fragile, and very delicate and when I met her much of the damage of the divorce, the separation from her father and her brother was already done. I think I only contributed to closing the lid on this very special person.

For a number of summers while in high school and my first years of college, I would spend one month at the ranch. Mary-Kelly my girlfriend at the time would spend her whole summers there and I would go in early August to join the Busch clan, and this is where one of my Niven stories begins.

For some reason I think Niven, unlike Teresa who resented my fathers wealth, took a real liking to me. He had come from wealth, his father had lost everything in The Depression, but he never was uncomfortable around it. Cheetah a San Francisco socialite and I loved each other. She was hysterically funny and so human. We laughed from morning to night and it was all great fun. On occasion Niven and I would take a walk and he would tell me stories about his life.

In the summer of 1966 or 67, when I was enjoying the life of a small ranch in California, one evening on a long walk Niven began to tell me the story I’m about to tell you. It’s a story about California, about loss and gain and maybe what could have been. In any case I’ve run out of room and time so this little story about California life in the mid sixties will have to wait till next time.

 

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February 12, 2014

Mr. S Meets Mr. Smith: Part Four

 

It’s time for a fourth annual give and take sometimes better known as “ask and you shall receive”, and on rare occasions “give it to me Mr. Smith”. The interview will take place as always by me, probing ever deeper into the truly eccentric ID of Mr. Smith.

Mr. S: For those who have followed your exploits and notations, is it true that you believe self-awareness (an examined life) constitutes a strong part of one’s ability to make great photographs? 

Mr. Smith: Wow, you get right to the point. Absolutely, yet not necessarily so. I don’t mean to be elusive, but this is a very complicated issue. For me I find photography to often be a key to unlock some of the great mysteries about oneself. I can look at photographs and tell a great deal about the person who took the photograph: it’s as if the photograph is a guidebook that helps reflect what one feels about the world around them. But I’m not sure self-reflection is necessary for everyone. If your life and your pictures are working well and you are comfortable with your work, so be it.

 

 

Mr. S: Can you elaborate further?

Mr. Smith: Firstly it is my belief that great photography as well as many of the arts is an expression of deep profound feeling that lingers in one’s soul ready and able to be expressed. Some rare people have an avenue directly to these feelings, and need nothing else. This is quite exceptional and often not the case. Most people are unable to express the positive forces that reside within them. They express resistance, frustration, distance, anger, and other repressed feelings in their work.

Mr. S: So what is wrong with that. Isn’t that simply expressing what they are feeling? 

Mr. Smith: Good question, but no. It is an expression of confusion and conflict, which is ok, but generally not that successful photographically. One needs to pour one’s heart out, to stand vulnerable, exposed, shouting (even if it’s a whisper) a very clear message to those around them to have the world even begin to take notice.

 

 

Mr S: I still don’t understand why confusion expressed in ones work isn’t successful?

Mr. Smith: Please remember, I am not talking about the surface, or a purely descriptive expression of something. The surface, i.e. the subject matter, is not in question. I am talking about what resides below the picture. For example I can feel in the photograph how one relates to the subject, whether it be a figure, or a landscape or even a still life. Is a photographer tentative, frightened, aloof, angry, etc. then the viewer consciously or unconsciously feels confusion rather than intimacy. The viewer will feel confused about their feelings. The photograph will remain unresolved, off-putting, and incomplete.

If you look at a Rembrandt or a Leonardo painting the subject is emotionally very complicated, but the painter who made those pictures is very clear.

 

 

Mr. S: Do you think you have the ability to make the same intense pictures as you are getting older and you have some illnesses? 

Mr. Smith: As long as the intensity is still there, as long as I can respond powerfully, as long as I am deeply attracted to people and the world in which we live, all is well. In fact I am far wiser today than years ago so one now gets the very best of me when I make photographs.

Mr. S: How do you see your legacy?

Mr. Smith: I put my life on the line for photography, and it returned the effort with abundance. Its gift back to me was a me devoid of most of my neuroses. One who is clear, sharp, and energetic. Whether all these years of work, or whether the work is good enough to pass the test of time, is beyond my control. What I do control is my effort and focus on trying to make great pictures. Whether they are or whether they’re not successful is up to the viewer.

 

 

Mr. S: So what is The End meant to stand for?

Mr. Smith: Many opposing things, and with that I will say goodbye and good luck for now.

 

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January 30, 2014

In Sickness and In Health Part 3

 

In the Summer of 2009 I began to notice that I was becoming slightly winded as I went up the stairs, and that a profound fatigue was beginning to nestle into my body.

On the next visit to Dr. Wolf in June of 2009, he mentioned I was becoming more anemic and he wanted to see me again in a month.

I returned a month later to see that I had become even more anemic, and he informed me it was important to immediately start chemotherapy. As I went through the process of having many tests before treatment, I began to get more and  more fatigued, until when the therapy actually began a week later I was close to needing a blood transfusion.

And so it began. I just avoided needing a transfusion as I responded very well to therapy. I began to actually feel much better and I went through a six month course of infusions without losing my humor or my hair. Ironically my hair stubbornly refused to fall out, which was a surprise and good news to all.

Over the last few years I have had two more treatments for reasons I won’t bore you with but at the moment all is well.

As I wonder to myself about the silver lining to my illness, for example, shouldn’t it make me re-evaluate my life, or change direction, refocus my efforts, change my priorities, or simply appreciate life for it’s beauty every day, I find actually that none of this has happened.

But do not feel any sorrow or pity for me because as I have gone through these last years with its many ups and downs, I have realized in most ways I am living the life I want. Sure I would love to have more time to spend with my wife, visit friends more, achieve more acclaim, see my son more, but if I look at my life as a whole, as the life I have actually lived for these past 45 years, I find I am doing what I want. I am living the life I dreamed about, I am resting as much as I need, and most of all I don’t think I would change much.

Continually reflecting on my decision making with the help of guidance over these past years has helped me choose the life I wanted to live then and not waiting for something traumatic to happen to make that change.

So as the world turns, and I along with it, I wonder what I will meet along the way. But with the past that I have chosen and hope for the future, I find myself looking forward to the road I must travel ahead.

 

Autumn

The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.

And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the starts down into loneliness.

We are all falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.

By Rainer Maria Rilke
The Book of Pictures, I

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January 23, 2014

In Sickness and In Health Part 2

 

 

It began with a small whimper

One morning while in my early fifties I had a simple flu and went to the local clinic for some medicine and comfort. By now I had mostly expunged my dreaded fear of doctors, and although still very trepidatious, I was able to overcome my resistance, and forge my way forward to seeing doctors.

It had been some years since my first encounter with doctors and physicals, and I now found my fears of sickness and doctors slowly dissipating. In fact, I was actually beginning to feel myself in good physical and mental health.

While at the local, clinic the doctor made a routine check of my blood to evaluate whether the illness was viral or bacterial, and to his surprise my white blood counts were very high.

He was quite sure there was something wrong with his machine (as he had had problems in the past) and asked me just to return in a few days to check my condition out further.

I’m not exactly sure of what happened next, but I do remember going to see an internist in Manhattan.

At this point in my life both in story and reality there was and is no going back. For years I have debated whether I should be telling you what I am about to unfold. For years I’ve kept this information mostly private except for friends, associates, neighbors, and a few others, so I’m not sure what purpose it serves to disclose it now, but then again I have tried to provide full disclosure. And with this promise as my guide, I am now proceeding to tell all.

When the internist evaluated my blood he became quite alarmed and nervous. For an hour he was trying to figure out what malady I might have that wasn’t that serious, all the time fearing that I was quite sick. Interestingly enough as I noticed he was getting more and more agitated and probably quite concerned I noticed I was becoming calmer. My blood pressure probably went from off the roof to normal. How could this be? All my life up to this point, I had imagined this moment and dreaded it. These fears had paralyzed me for a good part of my existence, and here it was happening right before me, and as the doctor was becoming more and more concerned I became calmer. How do I explain this?

I remember him commenting about how peculiar it was that I should be calm when most people would be so nervous. In conclusion he recommended that I have a biopsy of one of my lymph nodes to see what malignancy I had.

My wife (Leslie), and I left his office in a stupor. I was totally confused as I felt fine. Leslie’s father who was one of the wisest men I knew, strongly suggested I should not get a biopsy until I met with a hematologist.

At this point I began to change from continually fearing sickness to believing I now truly was, but instead of becoming immobile and paralyzed as I always had feared, somewhere I began to find strength.

We went to visit my college friend Michael, who I had rarely seen, because he was a doctor, and I was terrified of him. Luckily, he knew me well, and immediately saw us and helped us begin to figure out  a strategy. I was also lucky that Michael is very smart and a very distinguished doctor so I was ready and able to take his advice. He told me quite bluntly, in agreement with Leslie’s father, that before doing anything, I should see a Hematologist who he recommended. And so began my relationship with Dr. Wolf.

On my first visit he did extensive blood work and a bone-marrow exam, and came back to us after examining my cells and told me I have chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

By being chronic rather than acute it can stand watching and doing nothing for some time. I am told my immune system is greatly compromised, and I must be very careful about getting sick as my system has a hard time curing itself, but otherwise there was nothing to be done at that time.

So this is the way it was for some years. My lymph glands were the size of oranges and I had some fatigue, but otherwise I was fine. I became a regular at Dr. Wolf seeing him every three months, until four years ago when things began to change.

Until next week.

 

 

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January 13, 2014

In Sickness and In Health

 

As noted in the past, on a peaceful summers midday afternoon in August 1972 my father collapsed in a restaurant in Manhattan while having lunch with some associates.

Just like a sudden snap of a falling majestic oak tree, he collapsed and died instantly. For years afterwards I too was sure I was dying without him. I invested in every conceivable malady sure this was the one that would bring me down. I was convinced that the bind that tied me to my father was unbreakable, and that without his strength and power to protect me, I would fail miserably.

My early adult life was filled with anxiety and hypochondria, which surrounded my conscious life with failure and sickness. Deep down though in the very private unconscious realm that resides within us all, I was surviving, progressing, and actually flourishing as a photographer.

From my early childhood, and especially in my adult life I was terrified of doctors. What might they discover by their probing tools and penetrating eyes on this weak and frail person. Just a thought of visiting a doctor ignited an anxiety attack. For years I simply avoided doctors. I was easily able to talk in front of hundreds of people, but seeing a lone doctor for an annual physical was out of the question. Standing naked and vulnerable in front of a doctor who was more knowledgeable about health and sickness than me was terrifying. Face to face confrontation was simply tortuous. If I let someone in, all they would find would be a failing sick person who was hiding under the veneer of health.

For me a visit to a doctor was even more emotionally intimate and revealing than physical intimacy with a woman, although being close and intimate is what I have most craved and needed my whole life. I was filled, even overwhelmed with desire and attraction but so fearful of it. My early adult life was so confused and anxious that real intimacy was mostly a dream and hope rather than a realization.

But not in my pictures. It was with my camera that I began to find intimacy. With a camera, I responded to this sick frail person I perceived myself to be, with a strong YES. The pictures were strong, powerful, and invincible.

 

I see it all now, all so clearly. I truly understand with over forty years of introspection with a doctor in New Haven. I took my mothers love, and it’s perceived withdrawal because of her sickness, and I then attached all the guilt I felt in the belief that my strength was the fault. If I remained frail, sick, and did not stick out too far by being overly assertive or strong then everything would be alright. I could keep things under control. I needed her love so badly that I would even take her sickness on to me. I would do anything to keep her alive. and well even if it destroyed and changed me. So at age five I turned a powerful vibrant smart young boy into a sickly failure for all to see. How could a mother abandon a child so in need of her love. I thought my strength was killing her and I changed everything to keep her alive. Instead of accepting my new state internally, I was always unconsciously fighting it with ruthless determination. This conflict in the end led to years and years of enormous anxiety.

Then I remarried at age forty, started a new life, and things began to change. As my fiftieth birthday loomed closer on the horizon this wife of mine insisted that I didn’t need my head examined anymore but that “now it was the time to get physical”. No matter how much I feared it. It was now time to have an extensive physical exam. My psyche was in good shape but how about my body. For me it was now time to open up and finally find out what was wrong with me. I was now going to let some doctor probe, inject, and look closely into my being and my heart (which I was sure was failing) and face my fears straight on.

So one Spring we went off to the Pritikin Institute for a thorough physical and the start of a new lean diet. I was finally going to face all my fears. I was going to let my father die. So with the help of many Valiums and enormous encouragement of friends and family I set off on an adventure of a lifetime.

This is just the beginning but until next week it is the END.

 

 

 

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December 23, 2013

Deck the House

 

Forget dinner in Singapore until next year, we have dinner right here in the good old USA.

Everything is as it should be, except for one small minor detail. Instead of turning up the heat, preparing the hearths for Yuletide fires, we are turning on the air conditioning.

Except for the bizarre fact that it is hot when it should be cold we are in a frantic pace, to prepare ourselves, our home, and our lives for what lies ahead.

This is our early winter, pre spring, Christmas activity. The house is abuzz with activity. All engines are humming along with a nice sonorous tis the season… as we prepare not for Babettes Feast but rather for our annual Christmas Roast.

Savannah, our daughter, is home for the holidays, and is baking every conceivable concoction of desert including a Yule log, a Bourbon pumpkin cheesecake, a red velvet bunt cake, a chocolate buttermilk cake, and various pies.

Since she has been surviving on college food for the last months her mind has obviously wondered off into the land of fanciful deserts, which she is fulfilling in the days before Christmas.

She has taken over the kitchen in preparation for her all-nighters of baking. There is flour sifting everywhere, moulds, cake pans, bunt pans, and pie pans being greased and caressed. Even our bird Melody is humming Christmas carols along with Savannah as she dons her apron singing I’m dreaming of a white Christmas while it is 70 degrees outside and focuses on her tasks ahead.

There is the aroma of Bourbon and pumpkin wafting through the house and as I make my way into the kitchen there are endless mounds of butter, flour, sugar, and chocolate. Enough good food to give any good set of eyes and nose good cheer.

Outside the final leaves are being raked, the lawn pristine with dew, the gravel driveway is being raked and manicured for our guests.

Inside the tree is glowing with decorations, and mysteriously mounds of presents seem to find there way under the tree.

The couches are being vacuumed, windows are being cleaned, beds are being made and slowly the house begins to shine its Christmas best.

And now we prepare the table for the feast. The handmade linen tablecloth is carefully ironed and with all hands on deck, is carefully placed perfectly over the large dining table.

Next my mother’s Royal Copenhagen china from the early 1950s is carefully placed around the table along with the silver tableware. The wine and water glasses are placed by each serving. The silver candlesticks are carefully placed in the center of the table, and beautiful flowers are placed throughout the house. Often there is the smell of peony, lilac, vibrant tulips, lush hydrangeas, and exotic roses perfuming the Christmas Feast.

Special wine has been selected and the house begins to shine with all its glory as it prepares to welcome those who come for this special feast.

As Christmas day approaches I love the smell of the fir Christmas tree and the decanted red wine. I love seeing my wife and daughter cooking, laughing tasting together in the kitchen. I love our housekeeper scurrying along with great purpose as we all prepare to carve the roast and give thanks that there still are traditions and values worth preserving, that in the preparation of a great feast one can find beauty and great purpose.

For me as I sit down to Christmas dinner and give thanks, to the year before, I relish the traditions that I still implore and hope that as we make our way into the next year we are able to hold on to some of the life we knew before. Happy Holidays to you all! Until next year.

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