Growing Old and Understanding Art

There are multiple reasons to explain my need to write articles. A part of my zest for writing is that over 2-decades ago, I wrote a human interest column for a newspaper in Dixon, IL. I did that for over a dozen years, which produced hundreds of articles. Also, I write many of my articles for the various college classes that I have taught over the past 20-years. I'll hand them out in class or post them online as a supplement to the text and lectures.

However, to be honest, I think that one of the major reasons for writing is that it is self-imposed psychotherapy for me. I get my pent-up feelings out. One could readily see that with all the articles written regarding politics especially during this past presidential election. In addition to a vast amount of stupidity exuding from the radical right, I write about the importance of world travel, family, and humor. I also reflect about several of my dances with death and what that means to me.

In particular, one of the issues that is swirling around inside me is my aging. Well, it isn't just aging. It is more about dying. I've danced with death a couple of times in the past 5-years. In fact, the 5th anniversary of falling off the ladder, which is my personal Skyfall, will be coming up on May 18, 2013. I don't recall falling nor do I recall the next 6-weeks...4 of which were in ICU after surgery for a subdural hematoma. A subdural hematoma is essentially an intracranial hemorrhage - bleeding on the brain. The neurosurgeon told my wife that I have a 50/50 chance of not making it through surgery. However, I made it through the operation. I recognized and talked with family members while in the ICU but don't recall a nanosecond of that time. I spent several weeks in a rehab hospital and vaguely recall some time spent there.

It took me another several weeks after getting back home to resume a normal life. In the nearly 5-years since my personal Skyfall, I have spent much time thinking about that dance with death.

A part of my thinking about my Skyfall tragedy is that I view it as a strange type of a blessing. I really know something at a deeper level of my consciousness. I knew as a 5-year old that all people die...sometime. However, after I danced with death, I know far more profoundly that I will die sometime. The emphasis is on dying and not on sometime. Unless, you have had a brush with death, you don't truly know what I know. Trust me. The blessing of my near-death experience taught me something that I did not fully comprehend...until 5-years ago. There was no way that either of us would know this truism at the deeper level without having gone through this tragic accident. I'm a different person today because of my Skyfall than I would have been without that near-death experience.

The blessing of realizing that I am not immortal has helped me appreciate the advent of Jack, my first grandson, into my life 2½ years ago and his brother, Owen's arrival into this world a half year ago.

Every week, Ann and I drive to Indy to babysit for the two of them. Watching Jack mature over the past 2½-years is a great experience. Owen even at 6-months looks around at everything within his world. Jack is one of the most inquisitive toddlers I have ever known.


I don't know how inquisitive I was as a toddler, but there was one college class about which I was most inquisitive; it was a 10-hour class called The Arts. It was divided into two 5-hours/semesters taken in your junior or senior year at Muskingum Muskingum is a university. I took it in my junior year and did fairly well but didn't ace it. However, my professor, Louie Palmer, saw something in me while taking his class as a junior. At the end of The Arts that year, he called me to his office and asked me to help him teach the class the following year. I was to be his teaching assistant. The Arts had 3-large lectures on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday, there were much smaller subsection with 15-20 students in them.


Louie teaching a subsection

I sat through the lectures and subsections again during my senior year and then taught about a handful of the subsections each week. In addition, I wrote the midterms and finals each semester and graded them. I did that as an classmates that were my fellow undergraduates. That opportunity was the most educational experience that I ever had in college, grad, or post-graduate school. I learned more and enjoyed it more than I can express.

The one painting that I loved then and still love the most is The Fighting Téméraire by Joseph Mallord William Turner, known to most as William Turner. I have had that painting hanging on a wall in my home along with a couple others of his for years.

J. M. W. Turner The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken

Turner painted The Fighting Téméraire in 1839. It was his statement of appreciation for that great 98-gun ship, which had been the second ship on the line in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. However, in 1838, that great ship was being tugged to dry-dock and cut up for scrap. Turner and the rest of England knew quite well the history of that heroic and great ship.

Captain Harvey of the H.M.S Téméraire, just before that great naval battle at Trafalgar, requested of Admiral Nelson to allow the Téméraire go first as they engaged the protect Nelson and his ship, the H.M.S. Victory. Nelson responded to Harvey tersely, "I'll thank you, Captain Harvey, to keep in your proper station, which is astern of the Victory." Harvey obeyed but still stayed very close to Victory. Throughout most of the battle, he was only away from Nelson the length of his ship. If you look at the initial line-up of the 3-fleets, Nelson and the Victory are at the center-right with the red flag. The ship that is right next to Nelson is the Téméraire.

Battle of Trafalgar

In that great battle, Nelson was killed. Harvey and the Téméraire took the initiative. It went after Redoutable and engaged the enemy. Then the Fougueux attacked the Téméraire from the other side. Harvey described the Téméraire's situation to his wife in a letter after the battle, "Perhaps never was a ship so circumstanced as mine, to have for more than three hours two of the enemy's line of battle ships lashed to her." He fought and captured them both.

Then, having helped defeat the Spanish and French armadas, a huge gale arose sinking many of the severely damaged ships of both sides. Nonetheless, the Téméraire successfully rode out nobly both battles between the navies and nature...and won both battles. It became the greatest ship that the British Royal Navy ever had up to that time. For some unknown reason, the navy wanted literally to scrap this ship. Therefore, in 1838, the Téméraire was decommissioned and towed to be destroyed.

The following year, Turner painted The Fighting Téméraire. In 2005, the British voted on what they considered their greatest painting in their country. The Fighting Téméraire easily won that 21st century battle. This national treasure appears almost like some ghostly Wagnerian ship of the distant past in the twilight of its life as a tug is pulling it to the dock in the twilight of that day. Interestingly, he painted this funereal painting of this great ship only a dozen years prior to his own funeral. Turner was grieving the death of a ship, but he was also grieving of his own demise. The Téméraire was a harbinger of his own death.

Interestingly, I knew the story of Turner and his painting of the The Fighting Téméraire over 4-decades ago. However, I have learned over many years of my life that learning is 3-dimenisional. Back then while I was taking and teaching The Arts, I didn't know the 3rd dimension of this story. However, as I also aged over the decades, now I truly understand what Turner was attempting to do in his painting. He was addressing obsolescence of a great British ship and a great British painter.

A couple of weeks ago, Ann and I went to see the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. As I watched Q and 007 sitting in front of the painting The Fighting Temeraire, I saw again the 3rd dimension of the story. After 50 years of many 007s, they are all aging like the ship - even this 007.

Watch and listen to the dialogue between the aging 007 and the youthful and not dry behind his ears, Q. The older Qs have aged and died off also.

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy.
Grand old warship being ignominiously hauled
away to scrap...The inevitability of time, don't
you think? What do you see?
007: Bloody big ship. Excuse me.
Q: 007. I'm your new Quartermaster.
007: You must be joking.
Q: Why, because I'm not wearing a lab coat?
007: Because you still have spots.
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
007: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
007: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.
Q: Well, I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop
sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey
than you can do in a year in the field.
007: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
007: Or not pulled. It's hard to know which in your pajamas. Q.
Q: 007.

It isn't death that rattles me. I can face death. I have faced it already. While it isn't something about which I will embrace when I can't lead death as we dance on the floor of life. What troubles me is leaving my family and friends. Now, I know that is a reality that all must face. We all will croak... someday.

We all will get to the place where we will have to say our good-byes. Some within my family have been with me more than 60-years. Saying good-bye is gut-wrenching to me and to them. However, the flip side of the coin is that we have had many, many years together. Those memories will be a salve that will lessen the pain a bit. My children and my wife have been with me for years. I won't be able to add much more love and caring for them than what I have already said or done. I could have done better or been more eloquent. I could have tweaked something or been more precise. Nevertheless, the memories are there and will be remembered.

But there is also Jack and Owen. One of them is 2½ and the other is a half year old. If I am towed to dry-dock like the Téméraire and scraped in less than a handful of years, those two kids won't remember their grandfather who loved them very dearly.

Ironically, I don't want to replicate in their lives what happened with my two grandfathers in the late 1940s. I have a couple of pictures of them with me...but those pictures are my only memory of them. They both died before I could remember them.

This essay is about a boat getting old, a painter aging, 007 becoming irrelevant, and me. I do not fear my death, but I do want Jack and Owen to remember their Papa who truly loves them both.

Al with Jack and Owen

Al holding Owen

Al with Jack on the beach

Ann and I babysit for Jack and now Owen every Tuesday since when Jack came into the world. When I am putting Jack to bed for a nap, I read to him a couple of stories. However, before tucking him into his crib, I look into his eyes and tell him that Ya-Ya and I really love him. Somewhere in the deep recesses of his brain is stored that truth. But, unless I am around for at least a half dozen more years, he won't be able to retrieve that message. And that reality is for me far more gut-wrenching than just facing death. The latter I can accept; the former is far too painful.

Baby Owen

An old man and his grandson

An Old Man and His Grandson

Visit The Mentors and Me page to read more about this topic.

Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

Visit the Dancing with Death page to read more about this topic.